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Escort Duty – Part 11

They rode down the trail until they came to a dry stream bed, which ran to the north. Simon turned there, taking them out of the hills and onto the valley floor just as the sun touched the mountains to the west. Soon, they rode in darkness, their way lit only by the stars.

Every so often, Simon would reach down to touch Soren’s breast and count his breaths. The soldier continued to breathe, but made few sounds and no movement. When Simon touched the bandages around his head, he could feel the wet of his blood seeping through them.

Simon looked up at the stars and whispered a prayer to his family’s gods for Soren.

“He can be a hard man,” he said, “but he’s loyal and a good warrior. Watch over him for me.”

The stars blinked down at him coldly, and no message of hope or comfort repaid him for his prayer.

Their horses stumbled through several fields left to fallow, but when they came upon a narrow lane of packed earth, they found their footing. After that, their progress was slow, but steady, and soon the forms of houses and barns loomed out of the darkness as they passed.

“Can’t we have a torch?” Greta asked plaintively after a tree, which she hadn’t seen, smacked her in the face with the end of a branch.

“Hush,” Erika ordered, “Simon’s trying to secret us across to the village, and that’ll give us away!”

The path turned to the west as they crossed a bridge over a small river, its water babbling through the bridges pilings as it went. The road on the other side was of stone and seemed well maintained compared to the dirt track they had been following.

“We should see the village soon,” Simon said quietly, “Hollo said it sits on that water, and it’s tucked right up against the hills.”

They rode on as a sliver of moon rose over the horizon. It was not bright enough to see details, but now they could make out farms as they came upon them. No dogs barked as they passed, nor did they see any lights or other evidence of people.

“It’s all abandoned,” Erika said.

“The bard at the tavern told me about this,” Simon replied, “He said that entire swaths of the countryside were deserted from the plague.”

“I thought that was up by the capitol?”

“Branka must have been wrong. There ought to at least have been a watchman on that bridge, and I’ve never come this close to farms at night without some cur waking up the entire household. There’s nobody here.”

The road turned to follow the river and rose to meet the hills in the distance. The only sound they heard was the water as it moved over stones in its bed and the clop of their horses’ hooves on the paving stones.

Finally, just as the moon set, Simon caught sight of a light ahead. He hissed to the women and pointed. The women started to speed their mounts toward the village ahead, but Simon raised a hand to stop them.

“Patience, ladies,” he said, “The captain needs us to be steady.”

After another half hour of riding, they came to the outskirts of the village. The buildings were dark, and by the light of the stars and the fire in the village’s central marketplace, which was what they had spied as they approached, Simon could make out doors and windows hanging open. Further in, the foundations of buildings remained where they had been pulled or burned down, leaving holes like open graves on either side of the road.

Simon gently halted his horse as they came to the center of the village, a plaza covered with the ashes of what must have been a huge fire. A smaller pyre blazed atop the ashes now. Erika could see the legs of chairs and other furniture fueling it, and the princess’ breath caught in shock when she saw the tiny body, wrapped in bedsheets, burning atop it.

The still form of an old woman kneeled next to the fire, her head bowed as if in prayer. Her face was streaked with soot, as was the plain brown and green dress she wore. A golden brooch, decorated with red and white stones to take the shape of a flying dragon, lay on her breast. Next to her, a staff of polished and engraved wood and several torches lay in a neat stack. Simon dismounted and approached her.

“Is this Taszar?” he said as he stepped closer.

“It was,” the old woman croaked, “once upon a time.”

“What happened here?” Erika called from atop her horse.

“Everyone died. Everyone,” the woman replied, standing up. Simon could almost hear her bones groan at the effort. She was stooped with old age, and she used the staff to support herself as she lifted her head and examined the strangers.

“Two weeks,” she said, “two weeks ago things were just fine here. Now, I’m all that’s left.”

“We were looking for the healer,” Simon said.

“No healer here, not anymore,” the woman said, “Old Katta is all that’s left.”

“The plague?”

“Everyone got sick, even the animals. Whole families would lay down at sunset and not rise with the sun. Now, they’re all gone.”

“Did nobody escape?” Greta asked. She clutched at the throat of her dress, looking around at the empty houses.

“Some tried. The Count’s men stopped them on the other side of the mountains and wouldn’t let them pass, so they came back here to die.”

The crone was wracked with a spasm of coughing, which doubled her over as she tried to catch her breath. Finally, the fit ceased, and she spit a gobbet of red-tinged phlegm onto the ashes at her feet.

“Won’t be long for me, either,” she said, leaning on her cane.

“When did the healer die?” Simon asked.

“Oh, I didn’t die,” Katta replied, trying to crack a smile, but failing, “I just gave out. So much death, and nothing I could do. My power faded as I watched them die.”

“We have a hurt man here,” Erika said, “Can you not help him?”

“Nay, it’s best I don’t try,” Katta said, turning toward the princess, “I’ve no power left to heal him, and I’d just spread the contagion to all of you.”

Simon nodded sadly. “Is there anything we can do for you?” he asked gently.

“There’s nothing to be done. By the time the sun rises, I will be with my children and their children in the next world. You’ll only join our fate if you come much closer.”

Simon turned and remounted his horse. He solemnly raised a hand to the old woman, who returned the gesture before falling into another coughing fit. He reined his horse back onto the road and led the women away from the pyre.

Katta watched them go, then kneeled in the ashes again. The words of a prayer returned to her lips as she lifted her head to watch the flames lick up toward the stars. After a long while, the fire burned down to a bed of coals shimmering in the dark. The old woman picked up one of the torches, lit it, and then hobbled toward one of the buildings near the plaza.

Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

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