(Link to Part 1)
Alex waited for Joseph to finish eating and then followed him from the hall. She tried to ask about Dalia, but her cut her off.
“Not here. Get your horse and your kit. Meet me at the gate.” That was all he would tell her.
Soon she was at the chapter house’s gate, leading her horse. Alex’s sword was strapped to her saddle. Joseph finally cracked a smile when he saw the two of them.
“Hello, Brutus,” he said, rubbing the horse’s nose and feeding him a slice of apple saved from breakfast. “Are you taking good care of Alexis for me?” Brutus whinnied softly and tossed his head after deftly snatching the treat from Joseph’s hand.
“Joseph, what’s this all about? And where’s Dalia?” asked Alex. When he just shook his head, her last shreds of doubt twisted into certainty. “What’s happened to her? Is she all right?”
“Come. Outside of town,” replied Joseph, leading his own mare to the gate. “Then we can talk.”
They passed through the thick, oaken doors, turned left, and navigated the short steep ramp in to the village of Goodhollow.
Goodhollow was laid out along one muddy track that led from the chapter house’s gate down the old road and the river. Wooden buildings lined either side, wide porches connected in ramshackle fashion to form a makeshift sidewalk above the muck. The town was busy already; the competing smells of woodsmoke and manure drifted up into the morning sky and over the wooden palisade that protected the village.
Alex and Joseph threaded their way through the morning traffic of people, horses, and cattle, and passed through the outer gate toward the river. Here the old road split on its way up from the south, one branch fording the river to the valley farmland and the other continuing north to the frontier. Joseph mounted up and headed north; Alex did the same. She urged Brutus forward until they were side to side and opened her mouth to ask a question.
“First things first,” said Joseph before she could speak, “you should know that your friend Dalia is an extremely brave young woman. And second—” he said, raising his voice to keep her from speaking, “—second, I need to know exactly what the two of you were up to yesterday.”
Alex sighed and slumped in the saddle. He knew; either Dalia had told him, or they’d been followed somehow. This news did nothing to ease the icy ball of dread in her stomach; if Dalia had been forced to tell Joseph, something bad must have happened. “Why? What happened yesterday?” she asked.
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to piece together. Alex, your friend Dalia is very, very sick, and if you were out doing something you shouldn’t have been then I need to know about it—Curate be damned.”
Alex was surprised by the end of Joseph’s sentence. The old man wasn’t and had never been associated with the Curate, despite his unofficial role as the chapter doctor, but he and Headmaster Barrius were usually on good terms. She knew that Barrius would punish her and Dalia if he found out how they’d spent their day of rest, but from the way Joseph was talking that sounded like the least of their worries.
“Where is she? Is she going to be okay?”
“I took her to the cottage. It’s better that she’s there.” Joseph had a cottage north of Goodhollow where he tended a small herb garden and kept his more sensitive potions. “She’s not well, Alex. I had to give her something to make her sleep, and I’ve been up all night trying to figure out what’s wrong.”
“You tell me.” Joseph shot her a piercing look, a look made more powerful by how sparingly he used it.
Alex sighed again. It wouldn’t do any good to lie. “We went out to the ruins.”
“Dalia was studying again and wanted to see some things for herself.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Joseph made a disapproving noise deep in his throat.
“We were looking for writing. Dalia is so good with the old language . . . she said she was studying how the Ancients used it. The headmaster’s library has some of the old speech, but not enough, and she didn’t want to wait for a book to come from Antioch.T She said it would take a year, if it came at all.”
“So you decided to just go on out to the ruins, then? Like you were heading down to the mill to go swimming?”
“It wasn’t like that. We were careful! We didn’t touch anything. And she said that it was in pursuit of our education, so it’s almost like we were supposed to go. The Headmaster always tells us to be in charge of our own learning.” The last line was a favorite of Dalia’s.
“Hmph! And so instead of doing something sensible—like asking me if I knew anything on the subject—you two decided to go gallivanting off into the only really dangerous place for a hundred miles around!”
“Yes.” Alex felt very small in the face of Joseph’s anger.
“You realize, of course, that even the most senior librarians in Antioch wouldn’t be able to identify every artifact in those ruins? That the Ancients had control over powers that we can only imagine? That maybe—just maybe!—the Curate forbids the handling of artifacts except by trained experts for a good reason? And that—” He cut himself off and shook his head. “We’ll talk about that later. For now, tell me what happened next.”
“I’m sorry,” stammered Alex. Her face was burning with shame.
“Alex …” Joseph realized the effect his words had had on the girl and lowered his voice again. “Don’t be sorry yet. Just tell me what happened.”
“Well . . . we went up the north road at first, checking to make sure that no one was following us, and then we took a shortcut off the path that I know about. We circled around and came into the ruins from the west.”
“We walked around. A lot of the buildings are really overgrown, so I had to hack a way through for us. Dalia was writing in her journal the whole time.”
“Did you go inside any of the buildings?”
“Only the big one. We were looking for books, or anything written down.”
“Did you find anything?”
“No books. Dalia copied down some more writing from inside.”
“Did you bring anything back?”
“No! We didn’t touch anything! We were being careful; we know not to bring anything back. Dalia didn’t even touch anything.”
“Dalia didn’t?” Joseph raised one eyebrow.
“I did. Just once or twice. An old door, and the wall once. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“I doubt it matters if you did it on purpose or not . . . but you seem to be fine.” He frowned. “You said Dalia didn’t touch anything? Nothing at all?”
“Not that I saw.”
“Did she fall? Trip? Scrape herself on anything?”
“Uh . . .” Alex screwed up her face, trying to remember. “. . . maybe once? I think I helped her up, she tripped near the big building.”
“On what? Did she fall on anything?”
“I don’t know.”
“And then what happened?”
“Nothing. We left the ruins, rode back, and came in for dinner. I was tired, and so I went to bed. Dalia said she was going to stay up and work on her notes.”
“Is that the last you saw her?” he asked.
“Yes. Joseph, what happened to her?” replied Alex.
“I saw Dalia not long after you left, I think,” said Joseph, taking over the story. “I was taking a late supper, and it was just the two of us left in the hall. She came over as I was finishing and asked me very calmly if I would take a look at her. She was very pale and was running an incredible fever.”
“She seemed fine when I left,” said Alex.
“Dalia said that it came over her very quickly. I suggested that we go up to my room upstairs, where my tools are. This is where your friend Dalia was very smart . . . and more than a little brave.”
“What do you mean?” asked Alex.
“She refused. She told me instead that I needed to take her to the cottage while she still had the strength to ride. Dalia read her own symptoms calmly and accurately enough to know that this was no normal fever. Another hour and there’s no way she would’ve been able to ride. Luckily,she was smart enough to see that and come straight to me.”
“Because you can cure her?” asked Alex.
“Maybe . . .” Joseph hesitated. “. . . and for another reason.”
“It was the best way to protect everyone else.”
“Protect us! How?”
“By isolating herself, Alex. It was the only way for Dalia to isolate herself without telling Barrius where the two of you were yesterday. She didn’t know what she had, and she had no way of knowing if it would spread. She was worried for you, too, but I checked you quickly before we left. You were snoring away.”
“I was tired.”
“I was very, very glad to see you up and healthy this morning,” admitted Joseph. “You know what the Curate would do to anyone who fell ill after being in the ruins.”
It took Alex a moment to catch on. “You don’t mean the cure, do you?”
he Curate is not known for taking risks with this sort of thing. ”
“Did you tell the headmaster that she’s sick?”
Joseph looked away. “I told the headmaster that it’s an early case of Grey Cough. Highly contagious, but perfectly mundane. It’s best if I keep her away from the others, of course.”
“Thank you,” said Alex, gratitude filling her heart. Joseph merely nodded. They rode on in silence for a minute before she spoke again.
“So what happened when you got to the cottage?”
“Dalia was hallucinating when we got there. I brought her inside and she began vomiting uncontrollably. The fever continued rising, and she was dehydrated from sweating and vomiting. Finally I just gave her a deep sleeping mixture just so that she could keep some water down.”
“She’s asleep now?”
“Yes. I spent most of the night after that examining her.”
“So what’s wrong with her?”
Joseph sighed and hesitated before speaking. “I don’t know. And that’s why I’ve borrowed you for the day.”
“Me?” Alex was surprised. “How can I help?”
“I need you,” Joseph fixed her with his stare again, “to go back into the ruins.”
“What?” Of all the things Alex had expected Joseph to say, this was the least likely. She stared at him. “Back? Back into the ruins?”
“You said that Dalia fell, yes?”
“I examined her from head to foot, and the only thing I can find is a tiny scratch under her right arm. It barely pierced the skin, but it’s fresh. I need you to go back and find what caused it.”
“You think that something got into her?” Alex’s blood turned cold.
“Maybe.” Joseph rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “And it’s the only thing I can think of at the moment. Every other possibility has been exhausted.”
“Weren’t you just telling me how dangerous the ruins are? How stupid we were to go in?”
“Yes, and you were stupid to go in. But who else can do it? I can’t tell the Curate about your little trip yesterday, and none of the villagers would even consider it.”
“You’re also the only one who knows where Dalia fell. And, well, if that isn’t it, if it was something else that made Dalia sick . . .” Joseph hesitated.
“You’re either immune to it . . . or you already have it.”
It was a sobering thought. They didn’t speak for a few more minutes as Alex considered it.
“I can’t tell you to go, of course,” said Joseph finally in a gentler tone. “It’s not a wise idea. But I know how close you are to Dalia, and I’m at my wit’s end about this. I’m stumped. And I wanted to give you this chance, because it’s more than the Curate would do.”
“I’m going,” said Alex. “I’ll go and find whatever she fell on, and I’ll bring it back.”
“Good,” said Joseph.
“Will Dalia die if I can’t find it?”
“She might die even if you do,” replied Joseph.
“I see.” Alex took a deep breath. “Where do you want me to meet you?”
“At the cottage. And be thorough, but hurry.”
“Oh! And before I forget,” Joseph leaned over and pulled something out of his saddlebag, “use this. Just don’t tell Barrius.”
The object that Joseph pulled out of his saddlebag contrasted jarringly with the rest of their equipment. It was a dirty plastic deposit bag. The deposit bag had a metal zipper on one side with a broken lock, and letters in the old language printed on the side. He also gave her a thick leather glove.
Alex’s eyes went wide. “This is a relic isn’t it?” she asked, holding the unfamiliar material in her hands. “Is it dangerous?”
“No—but what you’re going after might be. Keep it in there, the bag should keep you safe. And for God’s sake don’t tell Barrius that I’m letting you play with artifacts, or he’ll have my head,” added Joseph.
“All right.” Alex stuffed the bag and glove into her pocket. “I’ll meet you at the cottage.” She urged Brutus forward.
“Good luck!” was Joseph’s parting call.
(Continue: Part 3)