(Go back to Part 10)
The sun was rising before their work was finished. McCann read a short prayer from the Lexicon before setting torch to kindling. The older, dried flesh burned quickly, but Jelling and Rickers steamed and popped along with the fresh green wood. Alex watched the bodies burn, blinking a few times to try and clear the fog that kept creeping in at the edges of her vision.
“. . . before we lose too much more time. Acolyte! Are you listening!” McCann was saying something.
“Uh, yeah, yeah.” Alex shook her head. “What?”
“We should get going. Where’s your kit?”
“It’s . . . uh . . . in the barn.” She didn’t move.
“Well, go get it.”
Alex nodded. She registered a curious look from the sergeant before she turned and went to saddle Brutus. The buckles were stiff and clumsy in her hands; it took longer than usual to get her kit tied down. When she led the horse in the yard, it took more than one try to get into the saddle.
“Are you alright, Acolyte?” McCann was looking at her again, already mounted. The sun was well up now.
Alex shook herself once. “Yeah. Just tired. Let’s go.”
The farmers and their families were nowhere to be seen as they passed through the gate back onto the road. A thin trickle of white smoke behind them marked the farm for the next few miles before it finally disappeared.
The sergeant was talking more than usual, but Alex had trouble focusing on his words. He would turn and look back every few minutes, and Alex would try to rouse herself, but it was hard to stay focused. She caught bits and pieces of conversation about the types of trees and different plants by the side of the road, but she just couldn’t quite put the thoughts together in her head. A roaring noise was building in her ears, and the fog was closing in from the edges of her vision . . . she slumped in the saddle a little more with each step Brutus took.
Finally she interrupted McCann. “Sergeant, I don’t think—I don’t think I can . . .” and she fell forward along Brutus’s neck and out of the saddle. Alex didn’t remember hitting the ground—the next thing she knew, she was vomiting uncontrollably into the ditch. When her stomach was empty, she rolled over onto her back. Sergeant McCann was there, standing over her. “Acolyte! Don’t worry, acolyte . . .” but his words trailed off as everything went black again.
Alex woke shivering. She was wrapped in a blanket, sitting propped up against a tree. A small campfire burned nearby. Water boiled in a pan over the flames. The horses were staked to graze nearby; Brutus’s head came up as Alex stirred. By the look of the sun, a few hours had passed.
“Oohhhhhh . . .”
The pounding headache returned as soon as she tried to move. It was sharp and clear now and the fog was gone. Alex lay back against the tree and decided to stay put.
A few minutes later, Sergeant McCann materialized out of the gloom like a gray shadow, surprising her. He had a handful of green shoots with him. “You’re awake.”
Alex struggled to speak. “Sergeant, what happened?” The aftertaste of bile was strong in her throat.
“The shakes and the vomiting are stress sickness. Most get it after their first fight.” McCann crushed a few leaves in his hand and dropped them into the water. “This will help, once it steeps for a few minutes.”
“I’m sorry, sergeant—I’m sure I can still ride—”
“We camp here tonight.” McCann cut her off. “Tomorrow we ride for the chapter house, and then I leave you with Headmaster Riles. You can continue the journey when you are ready.”
“Then . . . I’ll keep going on my own.” It was difficult to talk.
“Acolyte . . .” The sergeant sighed and closed his eyes. “You are not ready to walk this path.”
“No, you’re not. Had you even seen one of the zombii before last night?” asked McCann.
“. . . Headmaster Barrius had one captured once,” admitted Alex.
“But you’d never raised your sword against one.”
Alex fought to stop her shivering. “. . . no.”
McCann shook his head. “You are at least a year from being ready.”
“Maybe so. But I have to go.” Alex tried to make her gaze as steady as she felt.
“You’re an idiot and you’re going to get yourself killed.” The sergeant’s voice was mild and matter-of-fact. “There’s no reason for it. You’ll get no additional standing with the Curate by taking the precepts early. There’s no reward for ego.”
“It’s not ego!”
“Then what? You want to impress your friends back home? Because you’ve picked a damn fool way of going about it.”
“It’s not for me!”
“No?” grunted McCann. “Then for who?”
Alex paused. “For a friend.”
“They’re not going to be impressed when you’re dead by the side of the road.”
“No! You don’t understand!” Alex’s voice kept bottoming out into a dry rasp. “They need help. From Antioch. There’s no other way I can get there.”
“Help?” McCann raised an eyebrow. “What kind of help?”
“I need to talk to the Grand Master. I need to convince him to help . . . and initiates always get to see the Grand Master when they take the precepts.”
McCann leaned back on his haunches. “Why doesn’t this . . . friend of yours . . . just go to Antioch themselves?”
“They can’t!” Alex shut her eyes against the pounding in her temples. “And if I don’t go, they’ll die.”
McCann grunted once. Alex clamped her mouth shut, afraid she’d already said too much, but the sergeant asked no more questions.
After a few minutes of silence, he raised the pan and poured a portion of steaming liquid into a small ceramic cup. He brought it over to Alex.
“Don’t drink the leaves—just sip. When it’s empty, I’ll give you another.”
“There’s only one Cure to the Plague,” continued McCann, “and there has only ever been one. You know this, right?”
“Yes,” said Alex, meeting his gaze.
“And you’re still going to Antioch?”
“Yes.” She held the sergeant’s gaze until the other turned away. McCann nodded once to himself. He sat on the other side of the campfire, pulled out a pocketknife, and began to whittle a small chunk of wood. After a few minutes he spoke again.
“I’m in the saddle by daybreak. If you aren’t, I’m leaving you behind.”
Alex said nothing, but her heart jumped.
“First thing tomorrow, we get rid of that.” He pointed to Alex’s white tunic.
“It’s a target. We’ll get you something brown in the village.”
“Do you know what this is?” He held up the shoots he’d crushed and dropped in the tea.
McCann plucked a branch from the stem. “This is Greenroot. You can usually find it in the shade, near . . .” Alex tried to hide a smile as the sergeant began to explain.
She was going to Antioch.
(Go on to part 12)