(Go back to Part 13)
The three of them sat around the table at the inn – McCann, Alex, and the newcomer. His name was Roberts.
“You can’t go South,” he was telling them.
“It’s the barons again. Ferdinand is too old and feeble to keep them in line; they’re looking for a new leader. Bors Sinclair is the favorite.”
“He’s been waiting for Ferdinand to go for years now,” said McCann.
“Well, he’s not waiting any longer. The counties in the North have declared for him, and they’ve closed the border to the Curate,” said Roberts with a long face.
“What! Closed the—but that’s—” spluttered McCann.
“Not just closed. Any Curate traveling through is subject to indefinite arrest. All the passes are being watched—I only just made it through.”
McCann shook his head. “Madness. And the chapter houses?”
“He hasn’t moved on them yet, last I heard, but if he’s arresting Curate messengers then it’s only a matter of time.”
McCann swore under his breath. “We don’t have the manpower to deal with this, not with what’s happening in the North.”
“Agreed, but that’s a problem for the Grand Master. You have a more immediate problem; how do you usually get to Antioch from here?”
McCann settled back into his usual slump against the wall. “Last season I crossed the mountains, passed through King Ferdinand’s holdings, and caught a ship from Felsbay. But if the passes are blocked, that’s not going to work.”
“You could head west to the ocean instead and try to catch a coaster through the straits,” suggested Roberts. “That’s how I’ll be heading back.”
“Aye, but you’ll be coming back six months from now. Can’t get a coaster this time of year, the straits are suicide until the end of winter.”
“Well . . . I guess you could head east, then.”
“Aye.” McCann sat, frowning to himself. “Aye, east.”
“What’s to the east?” asked Alex.
Roberts glanced at McCann once before explaining. “Fâl Selim, and the desert.”
“And what’s in the desert?” asked Alex.
“Sand,” said McCann, cutting off the other knight before he could speak. “Lots of sand.”
“. . . and other things,” added Roberts. When it was obvious McCann wasn’t going to explain, he continued. “The desert was the Ancients’ last battleground against the plague. They used every weapon at their disposal there, things they refused to use before. Large parts of the desert are still . . . well, cursed.”
“Cursed?” The other knight had Alex’s attention now.
“There’s no way to know, at least not right away. Say you drink water from a well that has the curse. You feel fine for the next few days . . . but then it sets in. Your skin rots, your hair falls out. Blood streams from your gums, and from your gut. Eventually you die. Incredible pain.”
“There’s no cure? No way to tell what’s poison?” asked Alex.
“None. The guides know what’s safe, usually.” answered Roberts.
“The Ancients could curse an entire desert, and still lost?” Alex was incredulous.
“Not many thirsty zombii out there,” grunted McCann.
“The curse doesn’t work on something that’s already dead,” explained Roberts. “There are other things, too, like huge craters where the sand has been melted to glass for miles in every direction. And ancient cities, buried in the sand, full of relics and terrible monsters . . .”
“Don’t fill her head with nonsense, Roberts,” said McCann. “You’ll have her thinking she’s going to trip over bloodclaws the moment we leave Fâl Selim.”
“What’s a bloodclaw?” Alex hadn’t heard of these either.
“See?” McCann sighed. “It’s a desert, Acolyte—hot, dry, and miserable. The tribesmen know their way through, just do what they say and you’ll be fine. Curse or no curse, we go east.”
Roberts nodded. “Well, good luck. I’ll let Riles and Barrius know of your plan. Anything I need to know about the North?”
“There was an attack at Reynolds’ farm. And raiders outside Goodhollow.”
Roberts raised his eyebrows. “What about the frontier?”
“The horde is still growing. We broke the siege at Blackrock a month ago, temporarily, but avoid the causeway. They need a hard winter, and reinforcements sometime in the next year.”
Roberts shook his head. “I had no idea it was that bad; you’re right, the dispatches can’t wait. If Blackrock falls . . .”
“Damn Barons think the mountains will protect them—Sinclair would let the whole valley burn if he thought it would weaken the Curate. Have you spoken with the Bern?” asked McCann.
“I have an audience tomorrow. He’s stretched thin as it is, and with Baron Sinclair making noises in the South he’ll see the Baron as a much more imminent threat. I doubt Blackrock will see any help from Dunheim, but I’ll try anyway,” said Roberts.
McCann snorted. “Not worried about the horde until they come knocking on his door, just like the rest of them. He’ll be asking where the Curate is when that happens!” He swore again, louder this time.
“Well, I just hope the Grand Master can sort it all out. I’m sorry to bear such foul news, McCann . . .” the sergeant waved his apology away, “. . . but I need to get some sleep. Early audience tomorrow.” Roberts stood.
“Of course. God keep you, brother.”
“And you.” Roberts paused on his way to the door. “You do what this old relic tells you, Acolyte. The sergeant’s one of the toughest men I know. He was my testing-master, back in the day.”
“Safe travels, Roberts.” The other Curate left.
Alex turned to McCann. “You were a testing-master?”
“Yes.” One flat syllable.
“But aren’t the testing-masters all field lieutenants? What are you doing out here if you—”
But McCann’s eyes flashed once, and Alex’s words died on her lips. The inn’s door opened again and spared them any further discussion.
“Ah, there you are,” came a woman’s voice from the doorway.
Alex turned to look at the newcomer, still off balance from the sergeant’s reaction. She blinked when she saw the dancing woman from the square brush her way across the threshold, still wearing her ruffled red dress. Her appearance sparked a few catcalls from the drunk at the room’s corners, but she ignored them on her way over to the pair. With a ruffle of skirts she sat on the bench next to Alex.
McCann stared at her. “What the hell?”
“You are just the two I’ve been looking for.” Her voice was deep, feminine, and as smooth as McCann’s was rough. She rolled the letter ‘R’ slightly. A fragrance of spice came from the long jet-black braid that snaked down to her waist.
“Who the hell are you?” McCann’s brow crumpled together like knotted wood, and he leaned forward from his slouch. One hand eased to the handle of his knife.
“I’m Rosa,” she said, pushing one errant strand of hair back behind her ear, “and I’ve been looking—”
“How the hell did you find us?” McCann’s casual blasphemy was surprising Alex less and less as the days went by.
She looked annoyed at being interrupted, but held her tongue and glanced at Alex. “I saw your friend pulled away by one of the street children. A penny helped him remember who you left with, and another convinced him to tell me what direction you went.”
McCann’s expression darkened even more. He glare flashed to Alex for a moment. “Remind me to talk to you later.”
Rosa kept talking. “I don’t like to waste time, Curates, so hear me out. I’m headed east, and I know that you’re headed east—”
McCann sat back against the wall, exasperated. “What, does the whole city know already?”
Rosa laughed, a big musical laugh that filled the room from the rafters down. “Well, Curate, you certainly aren’t going south or west.” The smile disappeared from her eyes. “Sinclair’s closed the pass to my people, too. We’re ‘undesirables.’” She bared her teeth at the last word.
“Her people?” asked Alex. “Who are—”
“She’s a Tano. A wanderer, one of the country-less ones,” spat McCann. “So? What do you want?” he asked the woman.
“A deal.” Her face reddened at the way McCann pronounced “Tano,” but Rosa continued. “You’re headed east. I’m headed east. The road’s not safe, and you need a translator—unless, of course, you speak Nimabic?”
Alex did not. She was fairly certain that the sergeant didn’t either.
“You need protection? Why? Price on your head?” asked McCann.
“No!” Her eyes narrowed; Alex could tell that McCann was making one hell of a first impression. “It’s just . . . the tribesmen will not let a woman travel in the caravans alone.”
“I’m sure you’ll find plenty of willing companions in Fâl Selim, just like we’ll find plenty of willing translators. The answer is no,” said McCann.
“No. No! I don’t travel with women–” Alex raised her eyebrow at this but didn’t interrupt the sergeant, “–I don’t travel with damned Tanos, and so I certainly don’t travel with any common—”
She slapped him before he could finish his sentence. The full force of her arm went into it; the blow knocked McCann back into the wall behind him. It was the first time Alex had ever seen McCann shocked.
“That’s for what you were going to say.” Rosa was standing now, ignoring the laughter of the drunks across the room. “You have the foulest mouth of any Curate I have ever met—I hope your God cleans it out for you soon, for all our sakes!” And she stormed out.
McCann stumbled to his feet automatically, hand clasped to the side of his face. He looked after her, stunned for a second, before the laughter of the drunks got to him. He whirled on them, drawing his sword as he did so. The naked steel sang through the air, and the silence was immediate and absolute.
He glared at them for a minute, daring someone to make a noise. No one did. With a last twitch he sheathed the sword and sat down again. Life returned to the inn—the moment passed.
It was several minutes before Alex dared to speak to him.
“. . . What’s so wrong with Tanos?”
McCann snorted in his peculiar way. “Tanos? They’re only the most untrustworthy bunch of murdering, lying thieves in the world.”
“She didn’t seem so bad,” replied Alex.
“That’s exactly it. A Tano comes at you all friendly, and then when you’re not looking . . . she’d have slit our throats at the first chance she got, mark my words.”
“Maybe not, though, and she could’ve been useful if she speaks Nimabic,” suggested Alex.
“And you!” McCann’s nostrils flared again as he wheeled on her. “Have you led anything else back onto our doorstep? Might as well put a sign outside for Sinclair’s men. We’re only a week from the border! Who knows who’s lurking around!”
“I—I didn’t know—”
“No. You didn’t.” His voice was still hard. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
(Go on to Part 15)