(Go back to Part 14)
“And Great Beasts there were,
rising from the ground in dark waves
gnashing teeth and shrill cries
And all the ancients cried out
For each strike of their weapons were in vain
and all efforts of their power only strengthened the plague.”
–The Lexicon, Leviathans 18:3
Alex and the sergeant left Dunheim early the next morning. It felt good to be in the saddle again, and Brutus was impatient to get on the road. Alex suppressed a yawn more than once as the sun began to creep over the horizon.
McCann was silent, although Alex thought he was keeping a sharper watch than usual. She wondered who the sergeant was more worried about: the baron’s agents or the Tano woman. They saw neither.
By lunchtime, Alex wished they had. The sergeant was still angry from the night before, and when they drew swords to spar the sergeant beat Alex mercilessly with the flat of his blade. By the time they remounted she was covered in yellowing bruises. Alex knew better than to speak.
McCann said nothing for the rest of the day. They slept outside, rose and set off in silence again the next morning.
After a few hours, a cart appeared ahead of them in the distance. They gained on it steadily as the road sloped to a small stone bridge. The cart disappeared over the last rise before the bridge. A moment later they heard a loud whistle and the tramp of running feet, followed by a short cry.
McCann held up a hand; they dismounted and tied the horses to a tree. Then, keeping to the woods at the side of the path, McCann and Alex crept forward on foot until they could see.
The cart was stopped just short of the bridge. Four men with crude cudgels stood around it; one of them had a booted foot on the owner’s neck, driving his face into the dirt.
“But I paid last time!” came his pitiful wail.
“What’s that?” The leader mimed cupping a hand around his ear. “Do you hear something boys?” The other three snickered.
“I did! I swear! Coming into town—”
“He says he paid already! Ain’t that somethin’!” They laughed out loud. The leader dug his foot in and the cart owner whimpered.
McCann turned to Alex. “Stay here. And I mean it this time!” He unbuckled his sword belt, keeping only his long knife, and pulled the hood of his cloak over his head to mask his features. “Stay!” he said one last time to Alex before stepping back out into the road.
Alex settled in the reeds to watch, curious. McCann adopted the limping walk of a very old man, hobbling down the road oblivious to the scene unfolding in front of him.
The leader was still taunting the cart driver when one of his companions noticed McCann. He nudged him once to get his attention and the leader shifted his weight.
“Hey, there, pops . . .”
McCann ignored him and went to cross the bridge.
“Whoa, there, whoa, friend! Where do you think you’re going?” McCann only stopped when a hand was laid on his shoulder. “What’s this?” he croaked.
“This is a toll bridge, friend. You’ve got to pay the toll if you want to cross.” The leader smiled a snake’s smile, pleased at his good fortune.
“A toll bridge? Nonsense!” croaked McCann in his old man’s voice.
“Oh, it is!” The leader gave several exaggerated nods, eyes wide, playing it up for the others who were restraining laughter. “The Bern’s own orders!”
“The Bern? Hmph.” McCann peered out from under his hood. “You don’t look like the Bern’s men.”
“No? We don’t?”
“No, you don’t. You’re uglier than a goat’s asshole.” McCann gestured with a shaky, frail arm. It was not a polite gesture.
“I’m—what?” The leader’s face purpled in surprise.
“Tell me, youngster, did you get in a fight with a dog when you were a child?”
“Look, old man, I’m warning you—” The other three were still laughing, but the leader’s face had turned dangerous.
“Or maybe . . . was your mother blind? Because if she didn’t throw you down a well when she had you—”
The leader reached back and swung his club at McCann. Alex saw a glint of steel as the knife swept from the sergeant’s belt. The blade caught the club mid-swing and bit deep into the wood. With one fluid motion McCann redirected the bandit’s blow and tore the bludgeon from his hands. Both weapons flew through the air into the face of the next thug. The man didn’t even have time to stop laughing; the thick wood smashed into his face, shattering his nose and dropping him to the ground in a shrieking heap.
Overbalanced, the leader tripped over McCann’s outstretched leg and went sprawling into the dirt. His two remaining henchmen rushed at McCann, clubs raised to strike. McCann ducked under the leftmost one’s blow and hit him in the stomach so hard with his shoulder that Alex heard the “woof!” of exhaled air from where she lay. The man went down hard, McCann tackling him, and lay there stunned. The sergeant rolled left, away from the other’s blows, and tangled his legs with the man’s boots, bringing the man to his knees. A moment later McCann had the man’s arm in a strange grip—Alex winced at the sharp crack and the cry of pain as the man’s elbow shattered.
The leader had scrambled back to his feet at this point, and McCann faced him with fists raised. He dodged several wild blows before stepping inside the leader’s attack and unleashing two brutal jabs to the man’s jaw. It staggered him, but he didn’t go down; he took a few steps back and snarled. McCann snarled back.
The man dropped a hand to his belt and a small jagged knife darted from a hidden scabbard. He rushed at the sergeant before Alex could shout a warning—there was a whirl of motion, a cry, and something went flying through the air. When the dust cleared, McCann had his knee between the man’s shoulder blades. The bandit’s right hand was bleeding profusely.
“Stupid! Ugly and stupid! What a combination!” He grabbed the back of the man’s head by his hair and pulled it closer to his mouth. “Never, ever threaten a Curate with a blade! Idiot!” He slammed the man’s head back into the dirt. The would-be bandit whimpered.
“Alex!” called the sergeant. “You can come out now! It’s time to practice poultices!”
The cart-pusher was nowhere to be seen. After staunching the bleeding from the bandit’s missing fingers and retrieving the horses, Alex followed the sergeant across the bridge and down the road. McCann was whistling and twirling his knife with one hand.
“Feeling better, Sergeant?”
“Aye.” He winced and put the knife away, rubbing his knuckles. “Although I shouldn’t have hit him so hard. Bit of a waste.”
They rode for another few minutes before McCann spoke again. “I almost forgot—” and he tossed Alex the highwayman’s purse. “Don’t lose this one.”
“Thanks.” She tucked it away. “Sergeant?”
“What?” he said.
“I’m a woman.”
A pause. “I . . . What?” McCann looked over at her, completely baffled at this turn of the conversation.
“I’m a woman, and you’re traveling with me. You said back in Dunheim that you don’t travel with women. Right before the Tano woman slapped you.” Alex only dared bring it up now that McCann had vented his anger.
“Oh. Right, that.” McCann rolled his eyes. “You’re not a woman, you’re a Curate.”
“What’s that mean?”
“How?” asked Alex.
“It is. It just is. Trust me,” replied McCann.
“Okay.” Alex let it drop. She looked at her hands and wiggled her fingers, thinking about the bandit. As if McCann could hear what she was thinking, he called back, “We’ll start with knives tomorrow!”
(Go on to Part 16)