(Go back to Part 33)
It was another day before she could rise or feed herself.
She nearly screamed when the sergeant changed the bandage. “It’s healing well—be thankful for that, at least.”
Alex nodded, beads of sweat standing out on her forehead. “Where’s my sword?”
“At the bottom of the river, likely, near the docks. You dropped it when you saw your hand.”
Alex hung her head, embarrassed. “Oh. I forgot.” She sighed. “It was a gift from the headmaster.”
“You’re not in much of a state to use it right now anyway,” replied McCann.
“My sword arm’s fine!” But the sergeant was right. She was still very weak.
Days passed by as they drifted down the river. The raft was large and laden with provisions for a hundred men; they were in no danger of starving. McCann boiled river water in a kettle over a fire in the center—some farsighted soldier had seized the stone from drier land before entering the swamp. The water was muddy, but safe enough once boiled.
Endless swampland passed by on either side in an unbroken, tangled line. When Alex grew strong enough to use the pole, they stopped tying up the raft at night. It was awkward with one hand, but the river was slow and so she managed.
“Where do you think we are?” asked Alex one morning as she finished her watch.
“I’m not sure,” said McCann, “but we’ve been bearing around more and more to the west instead of south. The river should take us to the sea, and the sea can take us to Antioch.”
That night there was a long, warm rainstorm. In the morning, Alex’s hand no longer hurt, but the itching threatened to drive her mad.
“Good,” said McCann when he heard the news. “Now we can take the bandages off.”
A few minutes later Alex was staring at what was left of her hand. Most of the flesh had been burned away from her palm, leaving her fingers gaunt and skeletal. Hard pink scar tissue covered the inside of her hand and licked up around to the other side like pale flames. When she clenched, sharp twinges of pain lanced through the puffy, stiffened flesh. Blood was smeared across her palm when he opened it again, seeping from tiny cracks in the scar tissue. It was ugly—an ugly red claw.
“A healer might’ve done better,” admitted McCann, “with a whole store of medicines to work with.”
Alex thought of spiders. “No, I prefer this to how it was.”
“Aye. And it didn’t mortify. Else I’d have had to cut the whole thing off,” said McCann.
“A one-armed Curate,” pondered Alex.
“You wouldn’t be the first.”
Alex remembered Matthias. “No, I suppose not.”
It took her a few days to get used to her new hand. The scar tissue was stiff, although McCann said it would loosen some. While she had no feeling in her palm, the joints and breaks in her scar tissue burned whenever movement broke them open again. When McCann saw this, he had Alex pour alcohol over the wounds. The pain was incredible, but McCann insisted, saying “I didn’t go to all that work just to see you lose it now.”
They saw no one. Alex lost track of the day—everything that had happened before her fever seemed like a terrible dream. As she had no sword, McCann had her training with other weapons. A tent pole became a quarterstaff; the twohanded grip stung her left hand, but the practice was good for rebuilding her flexibility. Sparring on the moving raft was difficult, so sometimes they pushed it onto a sandbar and fought in the shallows.
“I like it,” said Alex one day. She was soaked from a fall in the shallow water. The sergeant was nearly dry.
“The staff. I think it suits me.”
“A useful thing, the quarterstaff,” said McCann.
“Doesn’t look like much.”
“Eh?” she asked.
“Walk into an inn with a sword at your hip, everyone knows what you are. Like as not some idiot will try and pick a fight with you. Come in cloaked and leaning on a walking stick, though . . . well, it can be useful, in certain places.”
“What about the zombii?” she asked him.
“Well, that’s a little tricky. You gotta learn to hit them right.” He picked up a rock and tossed it in the air. A strike from his own staff sent it sailing out over the water. He turned back to her. “Of course, the right eye will always know a quarterstaff isn’t just a walking stick. You’re not like to fool him either way.”
(Go on to Part 35)