This chapter really gets me.
The night is short and restless, the men swear they hear someone or something prowling their camp and everyone is on high alert after searches turn up nothing but the wind and grass. Before long the prowler is back and the fear rises again but more searches still yield nothing and no one, at dawn the fifteen men break camp and begin the slow plod down the hill toward the western mountains, the whole time unaware of their follower. Progress is slow for no other reason then James is more content to look around at the side of his nation he rarely visits then to actually hunt down and deal with any barbarians within his boarders. With annoyed glances the men keep the slow pace with their king without any ill words or misguided glares caught by king or captain. The slow pace is agony on the men and worse yet for their tag along that is forced to hide in the untouched fields moving as slow as possible to avoid rustling the dormant, dried crops around him; he creeps quietly along watching them all day and long into the after noon till the shadows of the mountains stretch long over the land and the men stop, fanning out to make a small camp for the night. With a sigh of relief their tag along slips away and races back to his camp, just a few hills away.
“Urzoth!” He pants running into the tent village, falling to his knees before the chief and wielder “They have finally made camp.”
“How far are they?”
“Two hills away, in the valley between the second and third hill.” Muk slowly rises, legs shaking some “Would you like me to show you?”
“No, that’s alright. Rest, you’ve been gone long and need rest.” Muk smiles and carefully walks away, collapsing a short distance away near a warm fire “Warriors, let’s go. They have made our job easier, two hills away, in the valley between the second and third. Move quickly and quietly.”
The men kiss their partners and hug their children before heading off with their chief, Black Flame on his hip, ready for its first taste of war in decades. They crest the first hill, then the second, their steps sounding like wind rustling the dry grass; they look down into the valley below, the camp is a circle with one large fire in the center, Urzoth looks to Tullo and smiles, the thinner man grins back and stands straight letting out a blood chilling war cry. The men in the valley below whip around and look up only to be blinded by the setting sun not yet behind the hill, the hold their swords at the ready but can not make out any figures waiting for them on top of the hill, just waiting and watching them.
Urzoth stands beside Tullo and raises Black Flame high above his head, screaming loudly before the thirty barbarians charge down the hill into the scrambling half armed camp. The men the Sparrows are bearing down on cough and wheeze with every swing of their short swords, the Sparrows disregard the noise, sure that it is nothing as they slaughter and drive back the men they perceive as being invaders. The thirty warriors slaughter the foot soldiers with blows and bows, shooting down those attempting to flee while fighting off those that choose to stay, it is not long till invaders run up the white flag and those that can limp away with speed while the Sparrow warriors thrust their weapons high letting out loud war calls. “Enough! Search the camp, take what we need, and find survivors.” Urzoth surveys the area “If there are any.” The men nod and split up, searching the camp for supplies and survivors.
The stars sparkle like jewels trapped in black silk, James blinks and groans as pain washes over him. In the distance the king can hear voices, he tries desperately to call out, his feeble attempt succeeding but instead of his loyal men he brings his enemy straight to him, the largest man looks down at him with intense eyes “Take him to Urzoth.” The others with the man grabs James’s arms and pull him up making his cry out as the puncture wound in his side is reopened. They heave him to his feet and half carry, half drag him over the cold ground to the chief.
“Urzoth,” The man with the serpentine sword turns and examines the injured man closely. “A survivor.”
“I see that, take him back to our camp.” James lets his head fall against his chest. “Take him to my tent, see that the healer takes care of him, when he is well we’ll return him to his people.” James looks up, eyebrows coming together in confusion.
“What?” He rasps “You’ll-You’ll let me go when I am well?”
“You and your people surrendered, we will not sully our honor by breaking the tradition of the clans.” Urzoth frowns at the man, while considering him closely. “We will speak later, take him home before he bleeds out.”
“You sure you want him in your tent, Urzoth?” One of the men holding up James asks “What about Lana?” Urzoth pauses, considering his options, his dark eyes return to the king of the lands.
“If you even think to touch my daughter you best be ready to meet your afterlife, because if she does not kill you, and you somehow survive me, you will suffer greatly at the hands of the men around you. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly.” James rasps, Urzoth nods and the two men holding him up begin the slow return trip.
“I don’t know Urzoth, it doesn’t seem safe.” Tullo speaks, a deep frown tugging at his normally smiling mouth.
“I will not be leaving him alone with my child. Let’s return.” the men nod, one begins coughing, and while the event is noted not much attention is paid to it. They make their way back to their camp where they are greeted warmly by lovers and children alike.
“Da!” Urzoth smiles and wraps his arms around Lana “Why did they bring back that man?”
“He is from the surrendered.” Lana nods and pulls away.
“And why must we share a tent with him?”
“We must make a good impression on these people, if we are to live peacefully we must treat them with the respect they deserve.”
“But what if they don’t return our kindness?” She asks, looking up at her father.
“Then we slaughter them like the animals they are.” Lana smiles and giggles. “Warriors, we have had a long day. Rest well tonight, tomorrow we must begin building up our food reserves for the winter that is indeed coming.” As though to emphasize his statement a frigid wind blows through the camp making them shudder, they quickly part ways and return to their small tents, warm on the inside and greatly protected from the cold closing in on them. James is already asleep when Urzoth and Lana enter their tent, the healer nods to them and carefully crawls out, the small tent just too small for four people to be in at once. The fire is stoked and Lana goes to bed after examining James’s sleeping face, Urzoth remains awake, acting as a barrier between his child and the stranger till finally sleep over comes him and his eyes shut.
Deep within the Sparrow camp a warrior and his family remain awake, a persistent dry cough and fever taking their toll on him as he slips in and out of light sleep, kept warm with the bed rolls of his family and a blazing fire. From the time he returned till dawn the next day he coughs and attempts to sleep while his family tries to ease the issue with teas and prayers to the god of home and health; when dawn comes the coughing spell breaks and he falls into a deep sleep, the family hoping the worst of it is over, only to realize that they have begun to cough as well. They go through the day as though nothing is wrong despite the coughing fits and exhaustion, when they return to the tent they find the warrior, eyeing them suspiciously, and still coughing. “Where did you go?”
“Market, silly.” His wife smiles, he nods and looks to his eldest son.
“I was fishing with Urzoth father, in your stead. You needed the rest.” Again he nods but it is a slower, unbelieving nod, he look at his youngest son.
“I was with mama.” The little boy smiles, proud of his full sentence, his father smiles at him.
“And who was mama with?”
“Me!” The boy beams happily, his father nods though disbelief permeates the gesture. He lays back down and closes his eyes, though he does not sleep, he remains awake to listen to what his family says while they believe he is not awake, leery of them even though he knows that they will not betray him in any way. His family spends the night coughing and growing more and more cautious of the others while around the town the coughing spell spreads and Urzoth becomes uneasy about the whole thing, wanting to wake his guest and demand answers but unable to bring himself to do it as the man has spent so long sleeping.
The next day brings the blood, each coughing fit covering the hands and lips of the warrior in blood spatter, Urzoth cannot afford to ignore this and so calls a town meeting “Attention everyone! There is a coughing sickness going around, At first it was a cough but now it seems that it draws life blood from the body. If you are coughing please remain in your home till we find a better plan. The healers and I meeting with Reader and the Elders very shortly. Please return to your homes till we have figured out a plan.” The fearful crowd does not need to be told twice, they quickly disperse and hide away in their tents, keeping to themselves and hoping the Reader will have answers. Urzoth goes to the Reader’s tent with Tullo, the healers, and the elders. “Reader, Reader, are you there?”
“I am here, chief.” The soft voice responds, Urzoth’s eyebrows come together in confusion.
“Child? Where is Reader?”
“She hasn’t woken up yet.” The crowd exchanges glances
“I need to open the tent, close your eyes child.” She closes her eyes.
“Ok, chief.” Urzoth unfastens the tent and opens it, there is Mari with her eyes closed tightly kneeling beside the motionless body of the Reader. Urzoth sighs and pulls Mari to him, pressing her against him chest.
“She is gone, Reader.” He whispers, “She will be among the stars.” The child nods, Urzoth looks over his shoulder and Tullo nods, he and healer crawl into the tent while Urzoth holds the child close, carefully the men extract the body and Urzoth returns their new reader to the tent before sealing it shut. “Reader, Reader, are you there?”
“I am.” Mari speaks hesitantly
“There is a sickness in the land, what do the gods suggest?” Mari is silent for a moment before speaking sadly.
“The gods are without words, chief.” The gathered share unnerved glances.
“I… understand. Reader, Reader do you sleep?” Mari remains silent and the gathered quietly leaves, taking up the body of the previous reader. They bring her outside of town where fire wood unused from the feast lay, carefully they build a pyre with the elderly woman on top and then set it ablaze.
“I will watch over her, Urzoth.” Tullo whispers, “You take care of the people.”
“Thank you, my friend.” Tullo nods and stays with the fire consuming the body while the others journey to the Elders tent. They have almost reached the hill when screaming breaks out, scared Urzoth and the healer run to the source of the sound, ripping open the tent only to find one of the warriors taken with Urzoth to the camp bleeding profusely from the neck and his family screaming in terror. “What happened?”
“He… He….” His wife wails “He ripped his throat open.” Urzoth blinks and looks at the dead man’s hands, they are covered in blood.
“How… Why?” His wife shakes her head.
“S-said a man was trying to choke him and just began clawing at his throat till he ripped it open.” Urzoth thinks for a moment.
“Burn the body. NOW!” The healer jumps into action, some holding back his screaming and crying family while others take the body and rush it to the pyre Tullo is watching over, adding it to the flames.
“What is happening, Urzoth?” The eldest elder asks, fear tinting his voice, Urzoth’s face has an unreadable expression.
“It is time I spoke with out guest.” He turns and leaves the tent, he rushes to the his tent and crawls inside, James still rests with his eyes shut. “Wake up!” Urzoth roars, shaking the man violently. “What in the name of the gods is going on?”
“W-what?” James asks trying to puzzle out what his captor is asking him
“Coughing, fever, blood, then visions. What is going on? What did you do to my people!” Urzoth demands, unaware of Lana’s presence behind him. “Tell me!”
“C-coughing?” James mind is slow but when everything clicks into place his eyes widen.
“I-I’m so sorry. My people, far to the south are sick. My men… They… God forgive me, I’m so sorry! I didn’t know.” James begins to weep, the wound and exhaustion taking their toll on the man. Urzoth pulls away.
“A sickness?” James nods “Is there a cure?”
“N-no… I’m so sorry, so sorry.” Urzoth sits back and shakes his head.
“Sorry?” He whispers “Sorry won’t bring back a man that clawed through his own throat…” Lana whimpers and Urzoth turns. “Lana? Oh gods above Lana, I didn’t know you were in here.”
“Y-You said everyone go home…” She offers weakly, he turns and crawls to her.
“I didn’t mean for you to hear any of that.”
“Will we be ok?” Urzoth pulls her against his chest, a comfort to both of them.
“I… I don’t know…” She nods softly against his chest. For a few minutes they stay like that before parting. “I have to speak with the elders.”
“Be safe, please.” She calls after him as he exits the tent, he does not acknowledge her words but he will be careful. He enters the tent and sits upon the open cushion left aside for him.
“Its a sickness, from far away.” He speaks, his voice grave. “The man said they had no way to stop it.”
“That what do we do?”
“Wait it out. We are a strong people, perhaps it will pass through us and leave us mostly unharmed.” Urzoth offers though he does not believe his own words.
“Perhaps. We… We will defer to your judgment here, chief. We have no words of wisdom to offer in this situation.” Urzoth gives him a sad smile.
“Neither do I.” The chief stands and stretches. “I will speak with the people, they need to know what is going on. And a tent for the sick must be made.” The elders exchange glances.
“Use ours, chief. It is the largest. It can hold many more then us.”
“Thank you, I’m sorry it took something like this for us to see eye to eye.” The elders nod in agreement “I will inform the healers. We’ll takes as many tents as we can as well. Some one will surely take you in.”
“They will.” The eldest smiles and they all rise slowly. “Do what you must, wielder. The people need you now more then ever before.” So while the elders pack what little they have Urzoth goes from tent to tent, speaking through the this walls to the people within about his plan. Slowly the Elders tent fills with coughing people in varying stages of sickness, some with a cough and fever others screaming and lashing out at unseen creatures. Tullo builds and sets more pyres while others continuously bring more wood, keeping the large fires burning bright and hot.
The days drag on, life seemingly returns to normal though a great sadness looms over those left while mutilated bodies are added to the pyres and mead is passed freely to those that watch over the burning bodies. Any slight cough is seen as a sign of danger, but with each family that passes a new tent is added and the sickness seems to slow down, less people die and the ones left alive breath easier. Urzoth and those that can still go out hunting and fishing, while some women preserve the meats and greens for winter. James feigns sleep whenever he hears someone approaching the tent, and can not bring himself to address the family keeping him alive and safe from the sickness. He watches over them at night, a restless father that tosses and turns in his sleep and a little girl more grown up and strong then her father probably realizes. Some nights he cries softly, afraid his sniffling will wake them. How could I? He thinks How could I have been so careless! These people… No deserves the sickness and I through it into this people’s small way of life.
The days drag on and the worst seems to be over, there are less pyres burning, less people to tend them too. Urzoth finds the strength to smile, and share soft bouts of laughter with the people, all trying to find the good in the situation brought upon them, James will not share words with the chief, but he stops acting like he is sleeping. Everything seems to be improving till a cold evening when the winds roar down the mountain side and shake the small tents huddled together trying to keep the wind away and a clear division between healthy and sick. Urzoth adds small sticks to the fire while Lana hums to herself, working on repairing a small hole in her winter leggings, a dry cough breaks the silence, Urzoth’s heart stops and he looks up at his child. A dry cough, she shares his terrified look, the first sign of the ordeal to come. First his warrior, then his people, and now his child. The world stops for a moment as grief washes over him followed by fear and an intense anger, the coughing keeps up, shaking Lana’s body and hurting her ribs. James stares on in horror and sorrow, he looks away when the chief glares over his shoulder at him, fists clenched tightly, jaw set, and eyes blazing with hate. “Da?” Lana whispers, Urzoth looks back at his child.
“Am I sick?” She already knows the answer
“Yes sweetest.” His voice barely above a whisper, Lana looks down at her leggings.
“Oh… Will I be ok?” She already knows the answer, Urzoth grits his teeth.
“Yes sweetest.” He lies, she knows he lies but the lie is so much easier then the truth. He stands up slowly and offers her his hand, she takes it and they leave, tears roll down James’s cheeks as Urzoth escorts his daughter to the healer’s many tents. The healer takes her in, shocked as Urzoth gives her a smile, barely holding back tears. “Be strong, sweetest. You will survive this.”
“I will be da.” Lana whispers, choking back a sob. Urzoth turns and walks back to his tent, when he enters James looks away, nothing is said as Urzoth lifts the little bear doll that Lana has had since birth and holds it to his chest, uncontrollable sobs shaking his body as the grief and anger all come out at once. James holds his breath as curses, anger, and sorrow spill out of the great man seemingly made of stone; the king waits for the anger to be turned against him but it never is, the anger turns to grief and soon both turn into sleep and James let out his breath.
“I’m sorry…” He whispers, knowing full well Urzoth cannot hear him.