(Go back to Part 18)
“Two things must be remembered about the Tools of the Ancients—or, as the laypeople call them, relics.
First, remember that despite all of their cunning, and all of their power, the Ancients were unable to devise a tool to stop the Plague. Only the flame can do that, simplest of all man’s tools. There is only one Cure.
And second . . . remember the most notorious tool of the Ancients: the Plague. If not for their quest for ever-greater power, the Plague would never have been created in the first place. We cannot afford to forget that lesson.”
–The Lexicon, Librarians’ Codex, Ch. 7
They spent the next week indoors, avoiding Baron Sinclair’s men. Patrols passed by a few times a day, but none of them entered Matthias’s shop. “I’ve never made much noise about being a Curate,” explained the old shopkeeper.
Alex and McCann spent the mornings practicing throws and holds in the hayloft over the stable. The hay helped—it wasn’t soft, but it was better than being thrown again and again onto bare wood or stone.
In the afternoon, when Alex was too stiff and sore to keep sparring, they studied geography and medicine. Matthias came in and commented on their lessons whenever business was slow.
“Remember, Alex: the Curates are not warriors, despite what everyone thinks. We are protectors and healers first. The sword is only one of our tools; use it only to cleanse, the way that one would cleanse a wound. Seek to build, never to destroy. Teach, don’t attack.”
Alex thought of McCann “teaching” the bandits on the road from Dunheim, but didn’t reply.
She woke early on the morning they were supposed to join the caravan. It was still dark, although the faintest glimmer of light spread in the East. Something felt strange. She rolled over to look at the Sergeant.
McCann was gone.
His bedroll was still there, unpacked, so he hadn’t gone far . . . but it was still strange. Alex sat up, pulled on a shirt, and slipped into her boots. Her skin prickled at the morning chill, but she ignored it. Bright stars glittered outside her window; the city was asleep.
The upstairs hall was deserted, though also brightened by starlight. Alex moved as quietly as she could, not wanting to wake the others. She remembered what happened last time McCann disappeared in the middle of the night, and took care.
When she reached the top of the stairs, a hand came out of the shadow and stopped her. It was Maria, dressed in shawl and nightgown.
“Shh!” Maria pressed a finger to her lips and shook her head, pointing to the window.
The narrow staircase window looked out over the street. Alex looked, but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. She turned back to Maria with a raised eyebrow. Maria pointed again, this time gesturing to the opposite sidewalk.
Alex looked again. After squinting for a few seconds, she was able to pick out a dark figure working slowly down the wall opposite them, taking great care not to be seen. His care was in vain, though; Alex saw him brush against a piece of timber propped against the building. It crashed to the ground, bouncing from the cobblestones and creating an incredible racket.
Even as the noise echoed around the neighborhood, Alex heard something else from their own side of the street. Someone was sprinting in bare feet along outside the front wall of shop. When they reached the door there was a thud and a muffled yelp. Alex heard the door slam again.
“Now! Come!” whispered Maria, and she ran down the stairs. Alex followed her.
Two people were struggling in the front room of the shop. Maria lit a candle—the glint of steel was visible in someone’s hand. When the blade pricked the other’s throat, the struggle stopped.
“Good, you know what that is.” Matthias’s voice. “Make a noise and it will be your last.” He eased the stranger over to a chair without removing the knife.
McCann burst in through the door. “You got him?” He glanced at Alex, but didn’t say anything. He had been the man on the other side of the street, stumbling over the piece of wood. It had been on purpose, she realized now, to draw the stranger to the doorway and Matthias.
“Yes. Anyone you know?” asked Matthias, standing crooked but holding the stranger easily even without his cane. Maria held the candle closer so McCann and Alex could take a look.
Alex didn’t recognize him. He was a slim youth, slightly younger than her and an inch taller. He had the lanky, awkward look of someone who had grown too much in a short period of time without having quite enough food to fill out properly. Dark eyes glittered at them in anger and fear, and his chest heaved with the effort of the struggle. Matthias’s knife glittered by the light of the single candle, the familiar Curate flame visible on its hilt.
“Nope. He’s a local, though.” McCann locked his gaze with their captive’s. “How long have you been watching the shop?”
The young man looked away.
“Hey! I’m talking to you!” He grabbed the man’s face and turned it back to his own. “How long have you been watching the shop?” But the skinny young man refused to speak.
“Fine. What’s he got on him?” McCann pulled aside the boy’s cloak show his belt. Two things were stuck in it—a small dagger and a green money pouch. McCann took them both.
“Well, this is a fat purse for someone who can’t afford shoes.” McCann held the pouch up to the light. It was bulging with coin. “Look familiar, Acolyte?” He tossed it to Alex.
She examined the fabric. “It’s the same colors we saw on the soldiers earlier.”
“Baron Sinclair’s men,” growled McCann. “He’s working for them. Aren’t you?” He turned back to the stranger. “Aren’t you?!?”
The young man didn’t say anything. “He probably doesn’t speak Anglic, Tobias,” said Maria.
“Then let’s cut his throat and be done with it, if he can’t tell us anything.”
“No,” Matthias sighed. “We can’t just kill him.”
“Why? Should be easy enough. I’ll do it if you don’t want to. I’ll do it outside if you don’t want the blood on the floor.” McCann reached for his knife.
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.”
“Matthias, he’s the enemy,” McCann gestured to the pouch.
“I know. But it won’t help.” Matthias sighed again.
“Keeping him from telling Sinclair’s men where we are doesn’t help?”
“We only noticed him last night, Tobias, remember? Who knows how long they’ve been watching us? They’ll know the game is up as soon as he doesn’t report, same as if he did.”
“If you look at it that way, keeping him alive doesn’t do us any good, either,” said McCann.
“No. We’re not going to kill him,” said Matthias.
“People like him are sending us home in chains, Matthias! You saw it yourself!”
“Am I going to have to pull seniority on you . . . Sergeant?” Matthias’s question was pointed.
McCann hesitated, eyes blazing, then looked down and sighed. “Fine. But I’m tying him up.”
A few minutes later the informer was bound to one of the chairs. His eyes kept darting from face to face, avoiding McCann’s.
“There,” said McCann, surveying his work, “he’s not going anywhere. Now what?”
“You and Alex need to take the horses and get to the caravan as soon as possible. With any luck you can get out of the city before they realize you’re gone. We’ll hold him here until you’re safe out of the city,” he motioned to their prisoner.
“And what about you and Maria?”
“We’ll head North with whatever we can carry. I’ve a few trading partners in Dunheim who can shelter us for a bit. The neighbors can watch the store—I’m sure the Baron’s men will trash it—but they can’t go ransacking the city at random without causing an uproar in the Merchant’s Council. We’ll reopen when they’ve gone.”
“But with your knee—” began McCann.
“I can still ride, Tobias, even if walking is a bit slow now. Don’t worry.” And he clapped a hand to his friend’s shoulder.
McCann frowned. “I’m sorry, Matthias, to bring this trouble to you.”
“You didn’t. Sinclair did.”
McCann nodded before turning on their prisoner. “And you!” He grabbed the young man by the throat; his eyes bulged as McCann pushed the chair back on two legs and the boy’s head crashed into the wall behind him. “You, my young friend . . . tell the Baron that if this is the game he’s going to play with the Curate, he’ll get more than he’s asking for.”
He held him there for a second before Matthias intervened again. “That’s enough, Tobias. You’ve scared the living daylights out of him; I think he gets the idea.”
“Good.” McCann released his hand before turning to Alex. The youth doubled over, gasping. “We should go, Acolyte. Now.”
“I’ll get my kit,” replied Alex. “Everything’s in the barn.”
“God keep you, brother and sister,” said Matthias.
“And both of you—Matthias, Maria. Be careful on the road.” McCann touched each of them in turn. He and Alex went to the back door.
“Good luck, Alex!” called Maria as they stepped out the door.
(Go on to Part 20)