(Go back to Part 42)
“There is only one Cure.”
–The Lexicon, Sunrise Doctrine 1:1
Alex rode through the forest, holding Brutus to an easy walk. McCann followed close behind on his dumpy-looking brown mare. They were both wrapped in long cloaks—winter’s grasp on Goodhollow was loosening, but the village had yet to see a single shoot of green come up through the snow. Horses and riders alike were spattered in mud from the half-thawed road. Alex’s staff was strapped to the saddle next to her, while McCann carried his own sword as well as another wrapped in oilcloth.
The path turned and they came to the small gate. Alex dismounted and led Brutus through. The apothecary’s cottage was just as she remembered it, a wisp of smoke curling from the chimney.
Alex knocked on the door. Joseph opened it. “Who is—” He stared, gaping. “Alex! Alex! It’s you!” They embraced.
“Damn, it’s good to see you,” she said.
“You too, Alex. I didn’t know if you made it or not!”
The apothecary’s smile vanished when he saw McCann, armed with one sword and carrying another. “You brought someone—I didn’t expect—”
“It’s all right. He knows,” she said.
“Ah.” Joseph’s face fell further. “Well.”
“How is she?” asked Alex.
“She . . . well . . . you should come and see for yourself.”
Dalia was under the blanket just as before, although she’d been moved closer to the hearth. She was thin, wasted, and her hair was brittle and thinning. Worse than that, though, was the gray pallor that crept up her neck and along one cheek.
“What’s that?” asked Alex.
“The Plague moves on its own, somehow. It has its own mind, independent of the body. It’s much slower on its own, but I had to adjust the dosage,” said Joseph.
“Show us,” said McCann.
Joseph pulled back the blanket. Dalia’s entire arm was ghostly white, except where black veins snaked through under her skin. The skin itself was cracked and dry. Her arm was dead, and the plague was creeping up her neck. Even the jugular was black.
“I’m sorry. No one’s ever been under this long before. I don’t know if it’s possible to come back . . . Alex, if you brought a cure, give it to her soon. It will be more complicated now, since the mortification is so far gone in her arm. I don’t even know if she should wake up; the pain would be unimaginable, with all of that dead flesh.”
“Don’t worry. I brought the Cure.” Alex laid a hand on the sword wrapped in oilcloth. Joseph bowed his head.
“I was afraid of that.”
They built a small pyre in the field behind the hut, on the opposite side of the vegetable patch. Dalia lay on the logs, wrapped in a cotton blanket. McCann stood by with a torch.
Alex drove her staff into the snow and unwrapped the sword McCann had carried for her. The scabbard was plain black leather, trimmed with steel and silver. When she drew the blade, it rang out with a clear note. It was fine steel, well-balanced, and deadly sharp.
Alex turned to McCann. “Do I have to do it myself?” She already knew the answer.
Alex turned to Dalia. She touchedDalia’s cheek one last time with her left hand . . . the wasted red fingers brushed against Dalia’s decaying gray flesh. She sighed, remembering. “What have we become, Dalia?” she asked herself.
Alex laid the blade against Dalia’s throat. One swift cut and it was done. Blood seeped from her neck, red and glistening, but so did something else. It was gray and white, the consistence of curdled milk, and it clogged the veins in her neck. The stink was instant and terrible.
She was already dead, thought Alex. She was dead months ago.
McCann set the torch to the logs. A minute later, and the pyre was aflame. The sergeant said a prayer, and they left Alex to sit by the flames alone.
They rode back to the Goodhollow chapter house in silence, McCann in the lead. The sword was clean and strapped tight to McCann’s saddle—Alex would not wear it until Barrius gave her the precepts.
Lost in her own thoughts, Alex didn’t notice McCann slow until the sergeant was right next to her. They rode this way in silence for a while.
“Her name was Elaina,” began McCann without preamble. “I met her at Matthias’s wedding, the year after he was discharged from active service. She was a friend of Maria’s—not a particularly close friend, but a friend. We fell into what some people might call . . . love.” He said the last word like someone admitting a terrible crime.
Alex was too stunned to comment. McCann continued.
“We were together every minute that I was there. Finally, it was time to go. We said goodbye. It was torture. After a week’s march, I couldn’t take it anymore. I deserted.
“I left everything behind; it took far longer to get back without a mount and avoiding all patrols, but I didn’t want to steal from the Curate.
“Three weeks later I was back in the city. I showed up on her doorstep, muddy and exhausted. She was with someone else—one of the other Curate brothers. Elaina pretended not to know me.” He looked away, into the woods.
Alex didn’t comment. She sensed that the story wasn’t over.
“I came back to Rochelle and Desdemona. I went to them, broken, and begged for mercy. The Grand Master gave me these lashes, and the name Oathbreaker, but he let me live. And so I still serve.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Why do you think?” McCann spurred his horse and pushed on ahead.
Alex’s feet were heavy as she walked up the hill to the fort. She felt the stares of passersby; she even knew some of them, but everything seemed strange and out of place. Images and voices pressed for attention in her head—Dalia’s blood, choked by white gunk, McCann’s story, the conversation with Rochelle a month ago . . .
A few of the Acolytes pointed as she passed through the gate. No one approached—she could feel their stares on her hand, even though it was covered by a leather glove. Everyone had heard of the red claw by now. She ignored them.
Alex’s feet carried her through the barracks, up the stairs, and down the hall. Finally she stood in front of Headmaster Barrius’s door. She hesitated for a moment, as she had that first time in September, before pushing her way through.
Barrius rose to his feet when Alex appeared. The sword from the citadel was there on the desk, although there was no sign of McCann. Instead, the two knights of the chapter were there to witness. Alex went to one knee.
“It is done, then?”
“Yes. She is dead.” She was dead already. She was dead in September.
“Are you ready to take the precepts?”
“Yes,” said Alex.
“Then rise, Acolyte, and hear your oath.”
Alex rose and took a look at Barrius. The headmaster looked as strong as ever, although the reading glasses looked ridiculous on his nose. The desk was as she remembered it, too, although the large document bearing the Grand Master’s seal was new. Barrius began to read the vows.
It was a lengthy process. Alex tried to concentrate, but she heard the words no better than she had before in the chapel above the citadel. Instead, her thoughts were crowded with the events of the morning. Dalia’s lifeless gray skin. Fat worms of white gunk bursting plump from her jugular vein. McCann’s story of oathbreaking . . . his face appeared again and again in Alex’s mind. “Why do you think?” Why, indeed? Why had McCann told her that story now, of all times?
“Acolyte?” Barrius’s voice called her back to the present with a start.
“Have you heard these words, and do you understand them fully?”
“Yes,” lied Alex.
“And are you ready to take these vows, and bind your life to the Curate and the service of the sacred flame?”
“I . . .”
“If you are, bow, and you will rise a knight.” Barrius held the sword in his hand, and was looking at her with a raised eyebrow. It would be Alex’s sword, if she would only kneel now. Kneel now, and for the rest of her life.
“I . . .”
McCann’s face appeared again. “Why do you think?” And everything clicked together in Alex’s head.
“I do not.”
“You—what?” Barrius stumbled over the word.
“I cannot take the oath. I will not.”
The three of them stared at her. “You . . . won’t? But the knighthood . . .”
“Is not a path that I can follow. I’m sorry, Headmaster. The fault is not with you, but with me.”
“I . . . see.” Barrius sheathed the sword. “Will you be going?”
“Yes. Thank you for everything.”
“Good luck, Alex. And God bless.”
She met McCann outside the fort’s gate.
“Well?” he asked her.
The shadow of a smile flickered across the old sergeant’s face. “Why?”
“Because you’re right. I would’ve broken my oath for Dalia, given the chance to. And the Curate doesn’t need two oathbreakers.”
“She’s dead, you know.”
“Yeah. I know.”
McCann grunted. “Rochelle suspected that this would happen.”
“He did?” Alex was surprised.
“Yeah. Said it didn’t much matter—said that you’d be useful either way.”
“Useful.” Alex spat. “I don’t know if I want to be useful to Normand Rochelle.” She thought of Baron Sinclair, General Clovis, Minister Turin, and the young soldiers she’d befriended below deck. They were all dead now.
McCann guessed her thoughts. “He doesn’t always kill them, you know. The ones who look for cures. Some he handles differently, like you.”
“Like me?” asked Alex, surprised.
“Aye. You’re not that different than the baron, after all—both of you were looking for a cure.”
“And now the baron’s dead, and I’m ‘useful.’” Alex shook her head. “I hope Rochelle isn’t right. I want no part of this.”
“So what are you going to do?”
Alex fingered the reins. “I don’t know. Can I come north with you?”
“Without taking the precepts? Best not.”
Alex nodded. “South, then, maybe, or west. I don’t know.”
The two of them shared a look. They embraced. “Take care of yourself, Sergeant,” she told him.
“Aye. You too, Alexis of Goodhollow. Good luck.” And Alex watched McCann ride off to the North. She turned Brutus the other way.
“Well, Boy? Where to next?”