(Go back to Part 17)
“So you and Sergeant McCann were . . .” said Alex to Matthias. The sergeant had commanded a certain amount of professional respect from both Headmaster Barrius and Knight Roberts in Dunheim, but it came with a degree of detachment as well. Now, Matthias actually seemed to be his friend. She had sincerely doubted his capacity for friendship during their silent days on the trail.
“We rode together under Rochelle in the Second Coast campaign . . . which was mostly bad food, bad weather, and precious little fighting, to be honest,” answered the retired knight.
“Matthias habitually forgets to mention the part where he saved my life,” broke in McCann, “and got his knee shattered in the bargain. Pass the wine.”
“Well, it worked out all right in the end. How else would I have met Maria?” He leaned over and kissed his wife. “Only the sweetest, gentlest, most beautiful nurse in all Baron Fernando’s—”
“Oh, stop it!” Maria pushed him away, chuckling.
His attack repelled, Matthias continued speaking. “Anyway, Tobias sent me to Maria, and got me out of the rest of the campaign in the bargain. A pretty fair trade, I think, for nothing more than a stiff knee.”
“What happened? If you don’t mind, that is . . .” asked Alex.
“No, no, it’s fine.” Matthias took another sip of his wine. “We’d been fighting an outbreak up in the mountains . . . it started near the coast, of course, but gained a good bit of momentum before the Curate heard about it. That can happen, with those rural outbreaks.”
McCann nodded his agreement. The older man continued.
“We’d just fought the horde for most of the day outside a small village . . . what was it called . . .”
“Fantall, that’s it. Now I remember. It took most of the day, but we finally pushed the horde out. There were a lot of them—more than just the local population. Later the librarians figured we missed the front edge of the infection by about a day.
“Tobias was just a junior knight back then, fresh from taking the precepts, and I was one of two sergeants in the group. He and the captain were going through the tavern—it was getting dark, and we were looking for a safe spot to bed down.”
McCann spoke up. “We were both filthy, but there’d been no bites and so things were good. Lots of bent chainmail, but no bites.”
“I remember that. They’d been munching on my forearms all day. You’d get these nasty bruises—” and Matthias drew a scarred forefinger along the inside of his opposite arm.
“Yeah. No bracers in those days.” McCann poured them all more wine. “Anyway, we were going through the tavern, checking it for stragglers. The place was a mess; all smashed up, not a piece of furniture left that wasn’t firewood. The villagers had tried to barricade one of the doors, but the windows were smashed in. They would’ve been better off blocking the stairs, but of course no one told them that. It was empty, both stories—when we checked it, at least.” McCann was back in his familiar slouch that Alex recognized from the headmaster’s office. The only difference now was the glass of wine.
“Finally, there was only one spot left to look—a big trap door in the floor by the kitchen. The captain didn’t like the look of it. Villagers, you know,” he said, turning to Alex, “have a bad habit of taking the first few people infected with the plague and locking them up, hoping they’ll recover or be cured somehow. They don’t, of course, and usually turn by the next day, leaving us with nice little surprises all over the place.”
Alex thought about Dalia, tied up now on the cot in Joseph’s cabin. The parallel was an uncomfortable one; she managed not to say anything.
McCann continued. “That’s what the captain thought of this. ‘McCann,’ he said, ‘if I was to stash my infected uncle anywhere, it’d be down here. Best we be real careful; I’ll ease it open with this crowbar, while you keep your sword ready. They can’t climb ladders, so we should be safe, but if there are any down there we’ll have to torch the place.’
“It was a pretty good plan, or at least we thought so. What the captain didn’t know was that it was only a half-cellar, and there was a dirt ramp that led up to the trap door instead of a ladder. I guess it made it easier to roll the barrels up.
“So I got into place, and the captain pried the door open. As soon as he had it cracked, a bunch of dirty fingers jammed through the gap. I yelled a warning, but it was too late—they swarmed up out of the basement, mad as hell. They’d got a good two dozen into the cellar before the village fell.
“I don’t really know what happened to the captain. Last I saw him he was getting dragged down, bitten in a half dozen places. Never saw him again. More wine?”
“Certainly.” Matthias filled his glass and took up the story himself. “All we heard outside was a shout and then a few crashes. We could guess what was happening, though—the moans always give it away. I ran in, thinking the others would follow . . .”
“But they didn’t!” McCann laughed.
“What? Why not?!?” asked Alex.
“There were only about a dozen of us to begin with,” explained McCann, “and most of them were young and green. It was the first really hard day for most of them.”
“And for you,” pointed out Matthias.
McCann shrugged. “Including me, I guess. Anyway, they were tired, they were scared, and they didn’t know how many we’d just stumbled on. It must’ve sounded like a hundred, from outside . . .” He trailed off.
“Go on, Tobias, I know this is your favorite part of the story,” said Matthias.
McCann set down his cup, smiling. It was a strange sight for Alex, and it looked like the sergeant’s face was unaccustomed to the expression. “So imagine this. Thirty of them pouring up from the floor, angry as hell and about to rip my limbs apart, and me—alone, trying to figure out which one to go at first. I’m about to start swinging when we hear this sound, and they all start to turn. It’s Matthias, screaming at the top of his lungs, blade out and sprinting right into the middle of them like he was leading a charge of lancers downhill. I’ll be damned if he didn’t just bowl straight through the middle of ’em and smack right into the wall next to me—all without a scratch!”
“Come on, Tobias, I wasn’t screaming, really.”
“That’s what the others said later. They said you screamed like a banshee. They’d never heard a human being make that sound, before or since.”
“Well . . . it had been a long day. Everyone gets a little crazy after a day like that.”
“And the look on your face when you turned around . . . and it was just the two of us . . .” McCann let out a pair of raspy chuckles, “. . . God, it was priceless.” He shook his head at the memory.
“I was hoping the rest would follow,” explained Matthias.
“He turned back to me, and we both looked at the mob. There were too many to fight all at once, especially as tired as we were, and once the others finished with the captain they’d be up to join the party. As they blocked the door, we turned and ran up the stairs.
“The stairs were stone, else we would’ve smashed a couple on the way up to block them. Still, it was a good choke point, even if it was a pretty wide staircase. I held the top while Matthias stabbed down from the balcony railing. It was better than nothing.
“That’s when we smelled the smoke.”
“The smoke?” asked Alex.
“The Captain had the others outside ready with torches in case the tavern was infected. They heard fighting, they were scared, no one was coming out . . .” Matthias trailed off.
“They lit the building,” finished McCann, “with us inside. We both smelled the smoke at the same time; the lower level lit first. Smoke doesn’t bother them, but it was choking us and so we ran down the hall to the last room and slammed the door behind us. I piled what furniture there was against it while Matthias checked the window.
“It was no good—a straight drop to the rocks below. We were more than two stories up—the tavern was built on sloping ground, hence the half-cellar—and the landing was too uneven. No way to jump.
“About that time they started banging on the door—they’re not worried about fire, of course, but they were hungry. Soon they’d smashed the top of the door to bits and I was fighting them back as best I could through the ruined door frame. Matthias was shouting his head off through the window, trying to get the others’ attention, but they couldn’t hear us over the roar of the fire. It was starting to get pretty hot—smoke was coming up through the floorboards, and I was hopping around trying to keep the heat from burning through my boots.
“Finally a floorboard gave way and a big jet of flame flashed up through the gap. ‘We’ve got to jump!’ yelled Matthias. I’d just killed another one and was turning to argue with him when he grabbed me by the collar and pulled me out the window.
“I landed on him—that’s how he broke his knee. I cracked a rib myself, but he got the worst of it. Somehow I finally got the soldiers’ attention, and they pulled us away from the fire before it killed us. Nothing else made it out. We both got shipped back to camp, me because the bottoms of my feet had been burned off, and Matthias because half the bones in his leg were sticking out. Saved my life, though.”
“Both our lives. They made Tobias here a knight-sergeant and sent him to Antioch, where—”
But McCann gave a tiny shake of his head and buried his face in his drink.
“—he did a great many things,” finished Matthias lamely. He joined McCann in a long drink of wine. The sun was setting. Alex was full of questions about how the story really ended, but she knew better than to ask.
Maria reentered with a candle. “We already ate supper, but if you want something from the pantry . . .”
McCann shook his head, but Alex’s stomach rumbled. She was startled by how dark it was—the sergeant had been telling his story for quite some time. She’d never heard McCann speak at such length.
“If you don’t mind, I’m pretty hungry.”
“Of course. Come, I’ll get you something.” The two knights refilled their cups again as Alex left with Maria.
The pantry sat in the garden opposite the stable, raised on stilts to keep the pests out. Maria climbed the pair of steps and rummaged around inside. “The bread’s a little stale, but the cheese is good.” She handed Alex a few pieces of flatbread and a wedge of cheese.
“That’s more than enough, thank you.” Alex accepted the food. “Ma’am—”
“. . . Maria, is there something wrong with Sergeant McCann?”
“What do you mean?”
“Between him and the Curate? Wasn’t he a testing-master in Antioch?”
She could hear the older woman’s face fall in the tone of her words. “. . . Yes, he was.”
“Then what is he doing out here, running dispatches? And why is he only a—”
“Alex,” the candle lit her pursed lips, “you’re right to ask those questions, but I can’t answer them for you. Tobias’s past is not a simple one, but it’s also not my story to tell, or Matthias’s. Tobias will have to tell you himself, if he ever does.”
“But everyone I’ve met so far trusts him. Headmaster Barrius, the knight in Dunheim, the Reynolds, you, Matthias—”
“Sometimes, Alex, that’s not enough.” Maria sighed. “Do you trust him?”
Alex thought about it. “I think so. Though he did poison me.”
Maria laughed. “That’s a good sign.”
“A good sign?” Alex was skeptical.
“Tobias is rough on cubs; he always has been, but it’s for the better. The more he thinks you can handle, the more he gives you.”
Alex hoped that this explained the constant drubbings she received in their sparring matches.
“Aren’t you a little young to be taking the precepts anyway?” asked Maria.
“It’s . . . not about the precepts, really.” Alex didn’t know why she continued talking, but her gut told her she could trust Matthias’s wife. “I’m not going because I want to be a knight.”
“Then why are you going?”
“I . . . it’s complicated.” Alex looked down. “I’m sorry. You won’t tell the sergeant?”
“He has his story, Alex,” she locked the pantry, “and you have yours. Don’t worry.”
(Go on to Part 19)