(Go back to Part 6)
“Skill at arms does not make a knight. Alone, it merely makes a buffoon. A sword cannot heal the sick or teach the young.”
–The Lexicon, Knightsbook 25:9
The road was good and the traveling easy that day. They followed the river, winding along through green farmland and tiny hamlets. Farmers worked in the fields, cutting hay and enjoying the break in the summer heat. A cowherd passed them in the other direction, twelve brown animals behind him as they moved from one pasture to the next. Alex knew each path and field from her patrols as an acolyte. The journey did not feel real yet; she knew it was different than any of her other trips, but part of her didn’t believe it yet.
McCann said nothing.
They reached an inn as night began to fall. A man on the porch spotted them first. He got up and yelled inside. “Thea! There’s Curates here!”
A boy took their horses and the innkeeper gave them a key. “Second floor, third room on the left.”
The sergeant declined dinner and went straight upstairs. Alex, though, left her kit at the stairs and wandered into the dining room. She seated himself at the end of a long bench, where the innkeeper’s daughter approached her. The girl was distracted with a handful of tankards.
“We’ve got mutton stew and black bread for five and a quarter, though you can get a bit of cheese with it for—” she noticed who it was. “Oh! Sorry Alex; the chapter’ll get your bill as usual. I’ll be right back.”
Alex pressed a few copper coins into her hand when she returned with the stew. “Thanks.”
“It’s no trouble. Sorry I didn’t recognize you, we weren’t expecting more Curates until next week. Did something happen? Who’s he?”
“A knight from the North.”
“Really? Well he looks a mess. I’m surprised Barrius sent him out on patrol looking like that.”
“Right—a patrol.” Alex felt no need to correct her. “That lot keeping you busy?” she asked, pointing to the other end of the table where a group of men were draining the tankards.
“Who are they?”
“Traders, just come up from the South. They had a bit of a scare, from what I hear.”
“Was it . . .?” Alex frowned.
“No, not this time. Just raiders, by the sound of it.”
McCann woke Alex early the next morning with a firm shake of the shoulder. The sergeant was already packed; Alex rolled up her bedroll and stumbled around, collecting her equipment in the dark. The stable boy was still asleep, and so she saddled Brutus herself and met McCann in front of the inn. They set off without a word.
It was chilly and damp again, just like the morning before. Their breath clouded in front of them, dripping to the ground with the dew. Alex wrapped herself in her cloak and thought of Dalia, lying in Joseph’s cottage. The image made her shiver.
The sun rose, sending blood-red shadows through the trees. They were the only travelers on the road this early in the morning.
McCann startled her by speaking for the first time since they’d left Goodhollow.
“Is this the furthest you’ve been?” His voice rasped like rusty garden shears.
“Yeah.” Alex waited for a response, but they rode in silence for a long time before McCann spoke again.
“Be careful what you eat at inns. Not all of them are safe like the Red Boar.” And that was the end of the sergeant’s comments for the morning.
Around midday they passed through a village. It was the first village Alex had visited outside of the chapter’s boundaries; she craned her neck to see around the bend into town, but when it came into sight her face fell. There wasn’t much to see besides a cluster of ramshackle buildings and a grungy inn; it was poorer than most of the villages in Goodhollow’s territory.
As they rode through town, a young girl ran barefoot alongside Alex’s stirrup, holding up a small bunch of flowers for her to take. She glanced down, then glanced up at McCann. The sergeant wasn’t looking. She smiled back at the girl and accepted the gift.
The child collapsed to the ground and began wailing at the top of her lungs. Women appeared from nowhere, rushing the two riders and haranguing them with shrill voices. A crowd formed. Shouts of derision were directed at the two, fingers pointed in scorn. Brutus snorted and flattened his ears at the sudden rush.
“What—but—I’m sorry—I thought she was giving it to me—I didn’t—”
They wouldn’t listen to Alex’s cries, but continued to press against her. It was too much, all at once—she couldn’t think clearly. The crowd was a mass of faces, too much for her to sort through all at once.
“Look, I’ll even—I’ll pay for it—” and she reached for her pouch, but it wasn’t there. “Hey!”
“Quiet!” There was a flash of steel as McCann drew his sword. His roar snuffed out the clamor like a candle. The villagers started to withdraw. “No—not yet!” His voice froze them in place. The sergeant wheeled his horse around and traced the edge of the crowd. His off-hand stretched out, palm up.
“Give it back.”
No one moved.
“Give it back, or I will burn this village to the ground, house by fucking house!”
Alex’s purse sailed through the air, thrown by an unseen hand. McCann caught it. “Good choice.” He motioned to Alex. “Let’s go.”
They passed the edge of the village. McCann reached over to hand Alex’s purse back.
“Thank you, Sergeant—ow!”
McCann cuffed her with the flat of his sword. “Idiot!” and he cursed under his breath, coaxing his mount into a trot. Alex followed, face burning red.
Sergeant McCann said nothing more. Alex rode behind him, nursing her bruised ego and cursing small children in dirty little towns.
Toward mid-afternoon Alex decided to apologize. She pushed Brutus up next to McCann’s mount and opened her mouth to speak.
“Wait.” The sergeant held up his hand. The apology died on Alex’s lips. “See that?” He pointed ahead.
“Crows, circling.” He was right. Large black scavengers circled over the road ahead.
“Maybe.” McCann loosened his sword in its scabbard, and Alex moved to do the same. “Stay behind me.”
As they came over the hill, the wreckage of three heavy wagons was visible. Oxen lay dead between the shafts, covered in crows. The wagons were smashed to pieces and their goods scattered in the road.
A body lay in front of them, face down and arms outstretched. They dismounted, and McCann approached. He turned it over with his blade and crouched over it for a minute, examining. Finally he waved Alex forward. “It’s all right. No bites.”
Alex joined him. The man’s skin was dark and his clothes colorful, decorated with beads and trinkets. The eyelids were open and stiff.
“Traders. From the east.” Sergeant McCann continued his inspection of the ruined caravan. Shiny fabrics were spilled in the mud, mixing with the pools of blood and shattered wood. Rough bootprints churned the soil on either side of the road.
“How long ago were they killed?”
“This morning.” McCann was rummaging in the side box of one of the wagons. “What’s this?” He pulled out an object.
“Whoa.” Alex’s eyes widened. “That’s a relic, isn’t it?”
McCann held up a pair of battered plastic binoculars. “Aye, and it’ll be damned useful, if it still works.” He was struggling with a lens cap. Alex frowned at his casual blasphemy.
“Sergeant, doesn’t the headmaster of the nearest chapter have to approve use of any relics?”
“Yup.” McCann peered through the lenses once before tossing them aside with disgust. “Broken.” He moved to his horse. “Let’s go.”
“What are we going to do with the bodies?”
McCann shrugged. “Nothing.”
“And just leave them for the crows? There are half a dozen people here!”
“They’re corpses, Acolyte, not people . . . and the dead don’t get upset about much.”
“We don’t have time to bury them, and burning them gives away our position. I won’t do either, not with raiders around.”
“But we’re Curates! Aren’t we supposed to do something? Anything?”
“Dead’s dead, and we’d be doing the Curate little good by joining them!” He jumped up into the saddle. “And Acolyte? Don’t question me again. My road, my rules. Goddamn it, Barrius was too soft with you.” He muttered the last part under his breath.
Alex followed him, lips white with the effort of pressing them shut, simmering with restrained anger.
(Continue: Part 8)