(Go back to Part 34)
“A knight’s life is sworn to the Curate, and the Grand Master is the Curate’s voice.
He shall obey the master, under pain of death.”
–The Lexicon, Knightsbook 1:3
One afternoon while McCann was napping, Alex spotted something. It was a narrow plume of smoke, barely a gray wisp against the wide sky, and it was just around the bend. She woke McCann.
“Sergeant! There’s smoke ahead!”
McCann was beside her in an instant. “There is. Come on, let’s get the raft to shore.”
With both poles they wrestled the raft to the proper side of the river. As they rounded the bend, a small stockade became visible. A patch of swampland, higher than the rest, had been cleared around it, and the half-hearted shoots of a vegetable garden rose from the bank. The stockade had a canvas roof, much patched, and smoke crept from a triangular hole cut in the roof.
Two small brown-skinned figures were working the garden. When they spotted the raft, they dropped their tools and began talking quickly in a strange language. One ran into the stockade, while the other waded out into the shallows toward them. He had his hands out, reaching out to them.
“Toss him a rope, will you?” said McCann.
Alex threw a long rope to the man. He caught it and turned, dashing through the shallows to a huge tree that stood alone, just away from the bank. He passed the rope around its trunk, and when the rope caught, the raft swung around and buried its nose in the sandy bank downstream of the stockade.
“Well, come on then. Let’s see who’s here. Hopefully someone speaks Anglic.” McCann hopped into the water, and Alex followed.
The man who tied the rope came out into the water to meet them. He was old and stooped, but quick and wiry. His chest was bare, and thin brown legs jutted out from under a tattered sarong. He spoke quickly in a language that Alex didn’t recognize, not seeming to care much whether they understood or not.
He pointed back to the stockade. McCann shrugged, and they followed him up onto land.
The stockade was old and not quite square. The gaps between crooked swamp tree trunks were filled with mud and wattle. Patches of lighter plaster showed where repairs had been made. They ducked through a low doorway and went inside.
The stockade was divided into two rooms by a curtain of stained canvas. Smoke stung Alex’s eyes; a fire burned on one side, and a small iron pot hung over it. Two more small brown men sat on faded mats, staring at the newcomers with curiosity and chatting in the same strange language. Stacks of meal and salted fish sat in the corner.
The curtain was pulled aside, and another man stepped through to greet them. At first he was indistinguishable from the others. Slowly Alex realized that he similar facial features to McCann’s, and was brown-skinned only because of the incredible layer of grime that covered his body. His hair was twice as long as hers, and he wore a huge unruly beard. Passable Anglic came from his mouth as he spoke.
“More visitors, eh? I’m not expecting no one for at least two more weeks. I’m Cain.”
“You’re a Northerner!” blurted Alex before she could stop herself.
The man grinned, showing a mouthful of black teeth. “True enough, though it’s been thirty years since I’ve seen the trees in autumn. Who’re you?”
“I’m Tobias, and this is my daughter, Alex,” answered McCann.
“Ah, names right out of the Lexicon. Just like mine own, although mine’s a fair bit less flattering. Then again, who but the devil’s own son could live out here?” He laughed a thick wheezing gallop of a laugh. Alex and McCann exchanged a glance. “Old Tom tells me you come from upriver. Didn’t know much folk lived up there . . . though you’re our second visitor this week from that direction.”
“Really?” McCann furrowed his brow. “Who was the first?”
“He didn’t give me much of an explanation, seeing as he was floating face down and half-eaten by the fishes. Gave me a nice scarf, though,” and Cain hooked a thumb in his green-and-yellow sash.
“You took his clothes?” asked Alex, disgusted.
“He didn’t have much need of ’em, now, did he? Heh!” Cain laughed again. “Strange place to find the green and yellow, though . . .” he looked at McCann.
The sergeant ignored the unspoken question. “What about the body?”
“Burned it. It was a little queer . . . a little too queer for my liking. And I sees a lotta queer things in the swamp.” Alex felt the man’s eyes move to her hand, and she hid it behind her back.
“I imagine it was.” McCann changed the subject. “How far from the ocean are we?”
Cain raised his eyebrows. “By raft? Five, six days maybe.”
“Will we find anything there? Ships?”
“A trading post, there is. They got ships in often enough, if you’re looking for passage.” He looked from one to the other. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention Cain’s little house out here in the swamp, though.”
McCann glanced at the long, oiled spears leaning against the far wall. “Why, are you hunting something?”
Cain laughed. “The sooner you forget about me, the sooner I forget about an old soldier and a girl with a burned hand.”
They were back on the river an hour later. “Is he a poacher?” asked Alex.
“Dunno. Whatever he’s hunting, though, he doesn’t want the locals to know about it.”
The next few days passed as usual. When they saw smoke again, it was more plentiful. Soon they were passing between acres of rice paddies instead of tangled swamp brush. Stooped brown backs shone with sweat as men and women worked in the fields. Most people ignored them or fled as they approached.
The trading post was barely that. A single mud street ran down to the dock from a stout timber fort. The fort sat on a low hill that was also the highest visible point. A pair of warehouses, a ramshackle inn, and a scattering of outbuildings finished the settlement, along with a circle of mud and rush huts just upstream.
The only thing made of stone in the entire trading post was a long breakwater that reached out into the bay. Beyond lay the ocean, wide and blue. Whitecaps broke themselves again and again on the rough stone blocks.
“That looks like Curate work,” said McCann. Sure enough, the red flame flew above the fort.
They got a few strange looks from the locals as they pushed their raft of rough jungle logs onto the sandbar near the inn. A few fat old men sat watching them in the shade of the inn’s porch, but no one approached or said anything.
“I’m going to go up to the fort,” said McCann. “You stay here and guard the raft.”
McCann tossed her the tent pole she’d been using for practice and splashed off through the shallows.
A small coaster rode at anchor in the harbor. It had one mast and was painted black with neat green trim. Sailors were at work on board, lowering casks out into a longboat tied alongside. Alex watched their labor; when the boat was full, the sailors leapt down into it and began pulling at the oars. They brought the boat to land, running it onto the beach next to her. A few gave Alex curious glances, but they were too busy with their work to pay her much attention. Soon the casks were rolled up into the shade of the warehouse. The fat old men on the porch watched it all, motionless.
McCann reappeared, coming back down the path from the fort with another man. The stranger wore a sword on his belt, and his tunic showed a tattered and faded red flame. He wore leather breeches and mismatched sandals. They waded out to the raft and clambered aboard.
“Acolyte, this is Sir Arsveldt.”
Alex bowed her head. “Sir.”
Arsveldt scrutinized her. “An Acolyte, eh?”
“Yes, sir.” Alex became suddenly self-conscious of her decrepit clothing and shaggy, matted hair, even though the knight in front of her looked little better.
“Tell me, then, Acolyte—how many cures are there for the plague?”
“Just one, the flame.”
“Hmph.” Arsveldt turned back to McCann. “you two may well be Curates after all, even if you’re the sorriest pair I’ve seen in quite some time . . . if you’ll excuse me for saying, sir,” he added. Alex remembered that McCann was technically a knight-sergeant and outranked Arsveldt, even if the knight in sandals was in command of the fort.
“Don’t bother with the ‘sir,’” said McCann.
Arsveldt shrugged. “It’s no matter either way—I’ve no extra coin for you here, even if you were the Grand Master himself. What you have, though, is more valuable than that.” He gestured to the provisions on the raft. “Several hundred pounds of salt pork? Do you think? And as much hardtack?”
“Aye. I figure as much,” said McCann.
“Well, the master of the Olive Bough will be happy enough to take you aboard for half of that. He was looking to provision here, but the harvest has been poor. Doesn’t like rice, anyway; I’ll talk to him.”
“Is he headed west?” asked McCann.
“Where else? Not upriver, that’s for sure.”
“If he’ll want half, you’ll take the other half?” asked McCann.
“If you’ll not be needing it, the army of Mudfort would appreciate a change from roast lizard,” replied Arsveldt.
“The army of . . .?” asked Alex.
“We’re a fearsome fighting force, to be sure. Didn’t you notice our citadel, on yonder mountain?” He pointed to the squat wooden palisade. “Mudfort, a humble name for a humble dwelling. The army numbers five, myself and four footmen. The only Anglic-speaking folk for a hundred miles! In the field, I’m known as General Arsveldt, and once I requisition your vessel,” he pointed to the raft, “I suppose I’ll be Admiral Arsveldt as well.”
Alex laughed. She liked the Curate in sandals. “Do you fight many battles, General?”
“Not many. The occasional zombii wanders in from the swamp. Once we had a pair of them—a great host, as it were.”
Alex laughed again, but McCann didn’t. “That may change. Has anything strange been found in the river lately?” he asked the knight.
Arsveldt shook his head. “Not that I’ve heard of, although . . .” he paused, “. . . we did have a great big ugly fish a few days ago. Black, full of spines, and fierce. Killed a boy swimming in the river. Never seen anything like it.”
“Did you kill it?” asked McCann. His hand strayed to his sword hilt.
“Speared it myself. It’s on the wall in the inn—a trophy,” answered Arsveldt.
“Best you burn it, and anything else odd you find in the river,” McCann told the knight.
Arsveldt looked serious now as well. “Really?”
“There is only one Cure.”
“. . . I’ll do it myself.” He looked at them again, and noticed Alex’s hand. “Does this have to do with your business upstream?”
“That’s for the Grand Master’s ears alone,” replied McCann.
“All right.” He looked again from Alex’s hand to the supplies on the raft. They were branded with Baron Sinclair’s coat of arms. “Though I’d give a lot to hear that story.” He shook his head. “I’ll speak to the captain of the Olive Bough for you as soon as he comes ashore.”
(Go on to Part 36)