Chapter Thirteen: The Coming of the Plague
For some time they remained in in Kyte-on-Farrowmill, as Elven knew Talya and Meredith were unfit to travel, and he would not leave without them. He knew in his heart, too, that he had not yet fulfilled his duty to find the source of the rumored illness, and as much as he wanted to return with his newfound family to Courerà, he could not ignore what the queen had asked of him.
Gwendolyn, for her part, did not disappoint in finding aid for the Outlanders. While Talya and Meredith regained their strength at the inn, she and Elven sought the town’s chief and spoke to him of helping the unfortunate souls from the north. At first, the chief, whose name was Guenther, was impassive and cold, stating that their town had little enough for themselves, never mind the scores of folk that were invading the land and fields outside. He was particularly dismissive of Elven’s pleas to consider them as fellow men and women, and to imagine being in their position; misfortune would come to all, he said, and it was not his place to decide their fates. When Gwendolyn reminded him, however, that she was the royal daughter, and presented him with a royal crest, he scowled, shut his mouth and listened.
“I would hate to let my father know of your injustice,” she said. “He doesn’t look kindly on folk who refuse to help those less fortunate.” Elven wondered if she was lying; he had certainly never got this impression from King Salâthar—if anything, quite the opposite. Guenther seemed reluctant to call the bluff, though, and for a few moments sat in silence behind his desk.
“If the king truly cared,” he said finally, “why did he let these Outlanders be driven from their homes in the first place? Why does he not defend his people?” Although his words were an argument, his tone suggested hesitation.
“My father is discussing this matter with the lords of Erârün as we speak,” Gwendolyn persisted. “Their armies will be sweeping through these lands in no time. And when he rides north with them, what do you suppose he’ll think when he sees one of his own towns casting out folk whose homes have been burned?”
Elven was impressed by the girl’s audacity; he knew she could not be certain of any such thing, and supposed the king, were he to discover Guenther’s actions, would in fact have little to say at all. Yet it was effective: Guenther grew pale, and muttered, “I didn’t think the king would be one to ride with his soldiers.”
“Oh, he is,” Gwendolyn said, “and for all I know, he might send you straight to the enemy when he finds out.”
Guenther’s lip curled, but he said softly, “What would you have me do? We haven’t room for them all in this town.”
“Take in the sick and weak,” Elven put forth, “and send food to the rest. We passed through endless fields on our journey here; I know you have bread to spare. Give them what medicine you have; make them welcome in your town once more.”
“Who are you,” Guenther said with scorn, “and why should I listen to you?”
“Elven is my guardian,” Gwendolyn said, “and his word is mine. Elven,” she turned to him, “should we send a rider south with word of this man’s treachery?”
Elven nodded and smiled slightly. “I think we should, your highness.” He could hear the chief’s teeth grind from across the room. “I’ll have one set out at once.” He turned to leave the room, and Gwendolyn made to follow.
“Hold!” Guenther called. “I’ll do as you ask. But—tell your father he must hurry. It won’t be long before the Hösland falls under attack from the enemy.”
“You have my word,” Gwendolyn returned.
So began a period of some weeks wherein the Outlanders were—reluctantly, in truth—welcomed back into the town in small numbers, the weakest and poorest among them given beds at the various inns throughout the village. A system was put in place, led by Elven and Gwendolyn, whereby Outlanders would be presented with stubs of paper, each one valid for a meal, or loaf of bread, or some medicine. Elven was not foolish, and knew that the townsfolk could not simply give their all to the Outlanders, for risk of starving themselves, but this arrangement allowed rations to be parceled out in reasonable quantities.
The village people grumbled, of course, and said they would be driven to the streets for lack of payment for their wares, but at Guenther’s behest nonetheless did as they were bidden, and an uneasy truce settled between the two folk. Most of the Outlanders remained in their camp west of the town, but there was much more travel between the two, with some of the more generous folk in Kyte actually traveling out to the encampment to see for themselves the suffrage of the poor people who had been driven from their homes. In return, they often made arrangements for families to return and live in their own homes with them, and so a good measure of the Outlanders were able to sleep in clean sheets and warm beds.
All the while, Talya and Meredith regained much of their strength, and Elven was relieved beyond measure to see his daughter start to walk around the inn, once more able to hold her head up and speaking, in her young language, to those around her. As her weight returned and her strength grew, he saw she was not in the least shy, and would often look up questioningly at strangers, who would usually pat her head and mumble kind words. He found he was able to have simple conversations with her, and realized that she was as clever and perceptive as he could have hoped for.
“Do you know me now?” he asked her one day as she sat upon his knee.
The little girl nodded. “Ye’re Elven,” she said.
“And who is Elven?”
“Daddy,” she said without missing a beat.
“How do you know?” he asked, wondering if the question would be too difficult for her.
Meredith appeared to think deeply for a moment, a frown upon her tiny face. “Because I love ye,” she said finally, giving him as big a hug as her arms would allow.
Elven could not help but smile. “And I love you,” he said in return. He held her tight in return, casting his gaze to Talya, who was sitting beside them near the fire. She smiled back.
“Ye’ve a good daughter, Elven,” she said.
“And she has a good mother.”
It was not long before Meredith began to show an interest in leaving the inn, and so Elven would take her on short walks through the town, holding her hand and allowing her to sate her curiosity by walking slowly and stopping often. Talya would often accompany them, and so too would Gwendolyn, who still felt most comfortable in Elven’s presence. The princess would often talk to Meredith, offering to hold her hand as well, and Elven began to feel that the four of them made a comfortable, complete family. Gwendolyn would tell Meredith of the Lichae, and of Courerà, and soon she was demanding to be taken there so she could see the great palace for herself. When Gwendolyn told her of the frogs that lived in the pools and ponds around the great hall, she spoke of nothing else for days afterwards.
“I want to see froggies,” she would say, and Elven would shake his head, bemused.
“You’ve done it, now,” he said to Gwendolyn. “I suppose we’ll have to find her some frogs.”
So they set out for a walk the next day, this time leaving the town to the south and making for the river that ran about half a mile away. Elven supposed they would find something there, be it frogs or fish, and thought it would be a welcome amusement for Meredith. It was too far for the little girl to walk on her own, and so he carried her on his shoulders, Talya and Gwendolyn pacing alongside him.
It had been raining heavily for some days prior, and as they approached the river, they discovered that it had swollen and spread out from the banks, swamping much of the field land around it. They stopped at the top of a low hill and looked down upon the brown and muddy water, disappointed that they couldn’t approach the river itself. “I don’t know if we’ll see any frogs from here,” Elven told Meredith.
“I want to see froggies,” she said with a pout.
“I know, dear,” said Talya. “Elven, let’s just go down to the water—perhaps there’ll be some tadpoles in the bracken.”
So they descended the bank, and near the water’s edge flattened an area of grass so that they might sit comfortably for a moment. “Why don’t you go look for frogs?” Elven suggested as he lifted Meredith to the ground, and the girl clapped her hands.
Elven smiled, and settled on the grass beside Talya. For a while they watched as Meredith meandered back and forth along the edge of the water. The girl seemed unable to find anything, let alone a frog, but she appeared to be enjoying herself nonetheless, and Elven turned to Talya.
“I can’t say that I’ve ever been happier in my life,” he said, and brushed her hair for a moment.
She smiled a little. “Me neither. But it can’t last here, can it?”
“What do you mean?”
“I know ye’ve been meaning to bring it up, Elven. Ye’re going to have to leave soon, and ye know it.”
In fact, this exactly what Elven had been hoping to broach, and a flicker of amusement passed through him: he was, it seemed, all too transparent to Talya. “As much as I want to stay with you and Meredith here, I must continue the mission I’ve been sent on.”
Talya nodded. “I understand. Ye weren’t expecting to find us, and it doesn’t change what ye’ve got to do. Now that this town is open to us, though, I feel it’ll be a safer place to stay until you return.”
“Return?” Elven exclaimed. “But you’ll be coming with me, naturally!”
Talya laughed. “How’d we come with ye?” she asked. “Myself and Meredith on horseback?”
“We’ll find a carriage,” Elven said. “You can ride, and I can drive it.”
But she shook her head. “Nonsense. Ye’ve a mission, and we’re not a part of it. When ye return, we’ll go with ye to this Courerà, and then we’ll see what can be made of things.”
“I think she’s right,” said Gwendolyn. “We don’t know what danger might lie to the north; let your child stay here, Elven—she’ll be safe.”
“Ye could leave one of your guards,” Talya suggested.
But Elven shook his head. “I don’t know how good an idea that would be,” he said, and looked at Gwendolyn. “We … we have doubts about their integrity.”
“What do ye mean?”
Gwendolyn looked back at Elven, then to Talya. “There’ve been attempts on my life,” she said finally. “Elven … Elven saved me.”
Elven nodded. “It’s true, I’m afraid. When I arrived in Courerà, Gwendolyn was being slowly poisoned. We still haven’t discovered the culprit behind it, and there is … a lack of trust, throughout the royal house.”
“That’s awful!” Talya exclaimed. “D’ye truly think the guards themselves—”
A sudden, rough cough from behind them cut her off. All three turned to see one of the guards themselves, standing imposingly above them, holding Meredith in his arms. Elven’s eyes darted to the sword at his side, and though it was still sheathed, a disturbing flutter grew in his stomach. “You shouldn’t let your girl wander,” the guard said gruffly. “It isn’t safe.”
For a long moment they sat looking at the guard, and for a long moment the guard did not move, holding tight to Meredith. The girl was silent, but Elven could see the fright in her eyes. “Put her down,” he said, as much danger in his voice as he dared.
The guard looked directly at Elven. For a moment, Elven thought the guard was going to refuse, but then he slowly lowered the girl until her feet touched the ground. Instantly Meredith darted to Talya, burying herself in her arms. “It isn’t safe,” the guard repeated, and he looked amongst them all then. Elven could have sworn his gaze lingered on Gwendolyn a moment longer than on any other. “For any of you,” he continued.
“What are you saying?” Elven returned. As he watched, the guard lowered his arms, and he flinched as his hand brushed the hilt of his sword.
“It’s dangerous out here,” the guard went on. “You never know what might be prowling.”
Elven shook his head slowly. “No, you don’t. Have you seen anything?”
For a moment the guard didn’t reply, his face hard as stone. Then, he said, “I hear the mosquitoes here carry disease.” He looked around slowly. “It’s prime season.”
“He’s right,” Gwendolyn said quickly. “I’ve been bitten twice already.” She looked to the north, past the guard. “Perhaps we should return.”
“Perhaps you should.”
Elven stood slowly, then reached a hand out to help Talya up, who was still holding Meredith. “Thank you for the warning,” he said. “We’ll not venture this way again until the season’s over.”
“Best you don’t.” The guard still hadn’t moved, and they began to make their way past them. Elven was reluctant to turn his back on the guard, but he saw little choice. They had made a few paces back toward the village when he called out to them again. “Watch your backs,” he said.
Swiftly, Elven turned back to look at him. The guard was standing watching them, sword still in its sheath. “Why do you say that?”
But the guard only said again, “You never know what might be prowling.”
Elven narrowed his eyes. “I’ll keep my eyes open.”
The guard said nothing more, and Elven turned once more. As as group, they walked away. Not until the guard was out of sight did he breathe a sigh of relief, and Talya turned to him. “I’m frightened, Elven.”
“You needn’t be,” he said. “I’ll make sure you’re safe.”
“It isn’t for myself I’m frightened,” she said back.
“No one will touch Meredith,” he said emphatically.
He saw her give the girl a quick squeeze, but she replied, “It isn’t even for her.” And then she looked to Gwendolyn. “Elven—I think ye’re right. I think the guards are plotting.”
“They won’t touch me with Elven around,” Gwendolyn said, but Elven could tell the bravado in her voice was false: she was as frightened as the rest of them.
“What about when he’s not?” Talya asked her.
Gwendolyn had no reply.
“Elven,” Talya said, “why don’t we teach her to defend herself? If she’s to go into the Outlands with ye, she’ll need those skills. And ye can’t be around her all the time.”
Elven found himself nodding in agreement. “Gwendolyn—what do you think?”
To his surprise, she was smiling. “I would love to,” she said.
As the following days progressed, Elven knew they were coming closer to the time when they would have to resume their journey north. He had little desire to, and so spent what time he could with Talya, Meredith and Gwendolyn. The princess took to learning her new skills with enthusiasm, and where Talya taught her to wield a blade, Elven taught her to aim an arrow. They found a light sword and purchased it from a blacksmith, for the larger blades favored by the soldiers and guards of Kiriün were too heavy for the girl to swing comfortably. Elven equally found a moderate-sized bow for her, and although he had difficulty with it, it was a perfect fit for her smaller frame.
Gwendolyn proved, as he had suspected she would be, a quick and apt pupil, and within a week had mastered the basics of defending herself against attack. He was not convinced she could stave off one (or more) of the guards should they, in fact, set themselves upon her, but he felt better knowing she could try. She started to carry her sword with her as she went around the town, and Elven thought perhaps the guards stayed a few steps further back than they had previously.
Then one night, as they were dining at their usual table at the inn, Erynth, the barkeep, came to them in distress. “I beg your pardon,” he said anxiously, “and I’m sorry to interrupt your meal, but sir—I need your help!”
Elven swallowed a mouthful of potato and looked up. Erynth’s face was pale, and he had all the appearance of having recently been weeping. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s my wife, sir,” Erynth said. “She took ill last week, and I thought it was nought but a cough, but now I can’t rouse her!”
Elven nodded. “Then you’ve come to the right person,” he said reassuringly, and stood from the table. “Continue,” he told Talya and Gwendolyn. “I might be a while.” Then, turning to Erynth: “Lead the way.”
“Oh, thank you, sir,” Erynth said, wringing his hands, and made his way swiftly from the dining area into a small passageway and up narrow steps. “I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do!”
Elven followed him upstairs and into a small room where a fire was blazing and many candles were dotted around window sills and ledges. It was excessively warm, but as Elven approached the bed, he thought he knew why: a woman lay bundled in layers of blankets, but her face was pallid and gray, and when he lay his hand against her temple, her skin was cool to the touch. “How long has she been like this?” he asked.
“Since this morning,” Erynth replied. Last night she was awake, though coughing a storm, but this morning … well, at first I thought, let her sleep, but when I tried to rouse her this evening she wouldn’t respond at all!”
Elven nodded. “Please, Erynth—fetch my satchel from my room and bring it, with haste.”
Erynth nodded eagerly in return, and fled the room. While he was gone, Elven pulled a stool beside the bed and took one of the many cloths stacked beside the bed. Erynth clearly had been trying to wake her, for there was a bowl of water near at hand, and Elven dipped the cloth in it before pressing it to the woman’s forehead. He had seen illnesses before, he knew, and many that would leave a person cold and unconscious, but there was an unsettling feeling in the back of his mind.
Erynth returned with the satchel in only a few minutes, and when he did Elven opened it and removed several containers of herbs and salts. “I will try to rouse her,” he said, “but I’m afraid I must warn you: her pulse is slow, and as I know you’ve felt, she is terribly cold. She may not wake. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, please don’t say that, sir!” Erynth exclaimed, and fresh tears fell down his cheeks. Elven felt a deep pity for the man, who had always been kind to them. “She must wake!”
“What is her name?” Elven asked gently as he began grinding herbs.
“Samantha,” he said, sniffing. “Her name’s Samantha. I call her Sammy.”
“All right, Sammy,” Elven said to the woman. “Try to hear me: we need to you wake.”
But for all his efforts, several hours later Elven was beginning to fear the worst. Not only had Samantha not reacted to any of his medicinal efforts, her breath had grown shallow and uneven, and her skin was colder even than the room around them. He turned to Erynth, who was sitting in a corner, sobbing. “Erynth,” he said. “I need you to remember. Tell me everything about Sammy since you first noticed her grow ill.”
But Erynth could only shake his head. “I don’t know, sir—I just don’t know. Last week she started coughing, I know that; she’d complain of being weary all the time. She stopped eating, but I thought, it’s only a fever—I’ve had worse myself. But then she lay down, and said she couldn’t get up. I tried, oh, I tried—but I’m not as strong as I used to be, and so all I could do was sit with her. Like I said, last night she was speaking, and I thought perhaps she was getting better, but …”
The story was painfully familiar to Elven, though he could not quite yet place it. “Where did she go before she was ill?” he asked. “Did she do anything out of the ordinary, go anywhere she didn’t usually?”
“Well, she was awful fond of helping the Outlanders,” he said. “She’s been working the market day in and day out for weeks, giving those folk bread and water. You think they’ve anything to do with it?”
It was a natural conclusion, but the more Elven thought about it, the less sense it made. “If the Outlanders were carrying disease,” he said, “and of this severity, surely they’d all have succumbed themselves. But apart from illness borne of hunger, I haven’t seen anything like this among them.”
He stood, and walked over to Erynth. He knelt before him and took the man’s hands. “Stay with her,” he said. “She may wake yet, and if she does, she’ll want to see your face.”
“Where are you going?” Erynth cried out.
“To find answers,” Elven said. Swiftly he stood and walked out of the room, his thoughts racing. He had the terrible sensation that he knew this disease, and if it was what he suspected … there was no cure.
He made his way down through the inn, where the fire was embers and the last candles were guttering out. Normally they would have been snuffed by Erynth earlier in the evening, but he was glad they had not been, for it gave him enough light to see by. Talya and Gwendolyn had long since retired, and so he grasped a candle and stepped out into the night. It was black as pitch, with only the odd window still illuminated here and there. In the dim light provided by the candle, he took an oil lamp from the wall and lit it, so that he could better see his surroundings. Then he made his way to the stables to saddled his horse, and within minutes was trotting slowly out of town, toward the Outlander’s camp.
It was slow going in the dark, the lantern lighting the way only a few feet in front of his steed, but it was not long before he saw tents passing on either side, and knew he was among them. Despite his misgivings, the contact with the Outlanders was the only thing that had changed recently, and if Samantha’s illness was somehow connected to them, he needed to know: the fate of the entire town was now at stake.
He guided his horse to one of the larger tents of the place, knowing from past visits that here slept several of the elders, and he needed their knowledge now. Dismounting, he walked to the tent’s opening, surprised to find that a man and a woman were standing silent in the dark, watching him approach. He bowed gently, and said softly, “My apologies for disturbing you, but I am afraid of something terrible, and I fear I can’t delay.”
The two folk nodded back, and the man replied, “It is no bother. We heard your horse in the dark, and thought perhaps an envoy was coming. At this hour, it can only be ill news.” He turned and motioned to the tent. “Please, enter.”
Elven followed them through the flaps of canvas, and once inside sat before the two elders on the floor. They sat opposite him, and the woman lit a few candles. In the glow, he thought they looked old and frail indeed. Why had they not succumbed? For a moment all were silent, and Elven finally found the courage to speak first. “There is rumor of illness in the north,” he said, “and I am afraid it may have been passed to the folk of Kyte-on-Farrowmill. There is a woman in the village lying near death, and I cannot rouse her. I must know—have any of your number experienced any sickness other than that brought on by hunger? Anything that would cause a person to sleep, and not wake?”
For a moment, the two elders looked at each other, before turning back to Elven. “I am Marrow,” the woman said, “and this is Corbyn. We know of you, Elven—you have passed through our town, many years ago.”
In the gloom, Elven could make few of their features out, but wondered if there was a faint familiarity. “What are you saying?”
“You were in the town of Rythe’s Helm, once,” Corbyn said. “Far to the north of here.”
A shiver passed through Elven. “Rythe’s Helm?” he whispered. “In the north of Erârün, where the enemy came?”
Marrow nodded. “We fled that town, as did many. Not all made for the mountains. Some of us became wanderers, and as we traveled the desolate plains, we were joined by many others whose homes had been burned.”
“You know you are no longer in Erârün,” Elven said.
“Out there, the boundaries of kingdoms mean nothing. The great wall runs only so far, and after that mark it is now a land of Darkness.”
“Are you saying the enemy has taken all the northern lands?” Elven asked, incredulous.
“We are saying they have no need to,” replied Corbyn, “for their Darkness has spread itself. We few, here and now—we are the survivors of their plague.”
“The rumors are then true,” Elven said hoarsely.
Marrow nodded. “The illness strikes down the old and young, weak and strong. It makes no difference. They pass into a deep sleep, and then they pass into nothing.”
Elven shut his eyes. “There is no cure.”
“None. All those who are afflicted die.”
“What do you know of this?” asked Corbyn.
“Too much, I fear,” Elven said, for he was beginning to remember why this illness was so familiar. Two dozen strong men, struck down in the wilderness, for no reason that he could fathom. “I have seen this before. They all died.” They had all died, within days. Every one of them. Or had they? Suddenly he opened his eyes again. “Except—they didn’t. I didn’t. I never got ill.” He looked at the two people before him. “Neither did you. Why not?”
But Marrow only shook her head. “We couldn’t say. There was no difference—as I said, many young died, while some elders lingered. But not all. This sleeping disease—it creeps, and grows, and follows you. We are all that are left.”
“Follows—you knew of this illness, and yet chose to come to this town?”
“What choice did we have?” Corbyn asked bitterly. “We were starving in the plains, and desperate.”
“Why do you think we stayed away?” Marrow continued. “Why do you think are camp is out here, and not closer?”
“Yet so many of you go into the town!” Elven exclaimed. “Some of you live there now!”
“We cannot tell our folk what to do,” Corbyn said. “Believe me: we asked them not to go, but some were desperate for the comfort of a true home. Can you blame them? And we have not seen the sickness in several months: we assumed—”
“You assumed it was gone?” cried Elven.
“You say you saw this illness yourself,” Marrow pointed out. “Why did you not stay away?”
And in that moment, Elven thought he saw the fall of kingdoms, for she spoke the truth. If this disease truly followed folk—even those it could not kill—then how could he be certain it had not already spread to the people of Erârün, and Kiriün? How could he be certain it had not penetrated the heart of Courerà? “I must return,” he said. “I must give them warning.”
“What warning could you give them?” Corbyn said. “Flee or not, they will succumb. All will, eventually.”
But Elven did not hear, for he was already passing out of the tent and into the night. Swiftly he mounted his horse, and as fast as the lantern light allowed followed the path back to the town. If Samantha was ill with this plague of Darkness, he knew it would not be long before many others would fall prey to it as well.
It was nearing dawn when he finally arrived back at the inn, and he passed by the stable and merely tied his steed to the fence outside the inn. Rushing in, he made his way back to the room where Samantha lay, and when he arrived it was to find Erynth on his knees beside his wife, weeping loudly and grasping her lifeless hand.
“She’s gone!” he cried. “My poor Sammy!” He turned to Elven, tears cascading. “Why? What did she do to deserve this?”
Elven stepped forward and stooped to help Erynth up; the man leaned heavily on him, barely able to keep his own feet. He led him to the chair again, where he fell and began bawling again. “She did nothing,” Elven said. “She did not deserve this fate. None do. But Darkness—”
“Don’t speak to me of Darkness!” Erynth cried. “This is them! Those filthy Outlanders, carrying sickness and disease. And it’s you—you and that wretched princess, telling us what to do! You should have left well enough alone! You should never have come!” He stared fiercely at Elven. “This is your fault—yours! Leave my inn, all of you—I won’t have you in my place!”
Elven closed his eyes for a moment and sighed to himself. He knew the man was irrational in grief, yet could not bring himself to argue. He said nothing more, and was about to turn and leave when suddenly Erynth started coughing: a deep, hoarse cough that went on and on. Elven’s heart skipped a beat. “Erynth,” he began, but the man cut him off in the midst of his hacking.
“Go! Leave us be! I know what you’re thinking, and if I’ve caught it, I’m glad—at least I’ll see my Sammy again!” and then the tears came again, and Elven could do nothing more. He left the poor man, and made his way down the passage to where he knew Talya and Meredith must be sleeping. Gently he pushed open the door, and was surprised to find her sitting upright in bed, waiting for him.
“Talya,” he said, “have you not slept?”
“How could I, with ye gone and that poor man crying?” she said. “They’ve no chance, Elven; perhaps some’ll survive, but most … this town is doomed.”
“You knew?” Elven cried out. Meredith rolled over and started to moan.
“Shh,” Talya hushed him. “Don’t wake her.”
In a softer voice, he continued, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know,” she shook her head. “I was overjoyed to find you again, and between you and Meredith … I never thought about it. I thought … I thought it was behind us. I thought it wouldn’t find us.”
“Oh, Talya,” he moaned. “A whole town is going to die—because I didn’t know!”
“My dear,” she said, “please don’t blame yourself—this is only the latest of dozens of villages. This is of Darkness, ye know—those whose homes weren’t burned died in their sleep instead. The enemy is coming, by blade or by plague!”
Deep in his heart, Elven knew she spoke the truth. But his fury was mounting, and he stormed out of the room. “Elven!” she called after him, but he did not stop. Raging, he left the inn and out into the street. He could not fathom the selfishness of the Outlanders—he could not fathom how they could willingly bring themselves to an unsuspecting village and bring a plague with them. Had they not considered that they might be carrying the disease, even if they were not ill themselves? Had they no conscience?
And then he realized that, in coming down out of the Reinkrag in the wake of the Hochträe’s deaths, and carrying on into the towns of Erârün and beyond, he was just as guilty. In blind fury he dropped to his knees, and in the dim morning light let out a terrible cry, screaming to the sky with all his might so that he might rid himself of his guilt. And when he could scream no more, he lowered his head to the ground, and wept.
For many moments he remained on the ground in the middle of the road, sobbing, until he heard someone call his name from behind. He turned, wiping his eyes, to find Gwendolyn standing before him, uncertainty in her eyes. “Elven,” she repeated, “what’s wrong?”
“We must flee,” he said in a hoarse whisper. “We must flee, and now—there is a terrible sickness coming.”
Her eyes widened. “You believe the plague has come here?”
“I know it has—I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And the Outlanders … Gwendolyn, they knew. They knew, and they came anyway.”
“They were desperate, Elven,” she replied softly. “Can you blame them?”
“They knew,” he repeated.
“They needed help, Elven,” she said, “and you gave it to them. You did what you felt was right—and so did they. Sometimes all the right in this world can’t make better an evil.”
So profound were these words on him that he looked up at her, astonished. In a heartbeat he forgot that she was a mere fourteen, and saw suddenly the queen he knew she would one day become. She had more wisdom, and more courage, than he ever could possess, he knew. And in that same heartbeat, he saw in her the same qualities that he had loved in Sonora, and somehow, in his grief, he began to feel at peace. She was right; this plague was no one’s fault.
Slowly he stood, and took her hand with a sad smile. “Do we go, or do we stay?” he asked her. “There is no helping this sickness.”
“Perhaps it isn’t so bad,” she said. “Surely not everyone can die.”
But Elven knew that there was every chance they might, and his heart tore as his duty as a healer fought bitterly with his desire to protect Talya, and Meredith, and Gwendolyn. “I don’t know,” he said. “When last I saw this illness, it decimated two dozen strong men in days. These folk—they have no chance.”
“Then let them flee—tell them to find shelter elsewhere, leave this town.”
“And then what? They would take this sickness with them. So the plague will spread!”
“Elven?” came Talya’s voice. “What’s going on?”
He turned from Gwendolyn to see her coming toward them, Meredith at her hip. “Erynth just told us we had to leave!”
Elven nodded. “I’m afraid his wife died in the night. He blames me.”
“Why? You tried to help!”
“Let us find somewhere quiet,” Elven said. “We should eat, for I fear we may be journeying before long.”
They wandered the slowly filling streets, looking for another inn as day broke over them in clouded skies. Finally they spied a place with cleaner windows than the rest, and entered. There were some few folk there already eating, and when the barkeep came to them he said, “You’re that healer from down south. Why’re you here? Aren’t you staying over with Erynth?”
Elven nodded and said softly, “We were, but—and please don’t say a word—his wife died in the night. We … we thought we should give him some peace.”
The man’s eyes widened. “That’s terrible. I knew she was ill, but I didn’t think …”
“We’d like a bite,” Elven said, “and perhaps room? Just for tonight?”
“Of course,” the man said. “You might be packed in to one room, but I’ll see what I can do.” He coughed. “Excuse me,” he said. “I seem to have come down with a little something myself.”
As he wandered off in search of food, Elven looked to Talya, and to Gwendolyn. “It’s begun,” he said darkly.
Talya nodded. “We’re going to need to leave, Elven,” she said. “Once the folk here think the plague’s come from the Outlanders, they’re going to look for someone to blame—and we’re the ones who said to help.”
“That’s kind of you, dear,” he replied, “but you had nothing to do with it. This is my fault—”
“Nonsense,” interrupted Gwendolyn. “If anyone’s to blame, it’s me: I threatened the chief into offering aid.”
“You were doing as I said!” Elven said. “This is squarely on me, and—”
“Elven,” Talya said sharply. “We’ll get nowhere arguing. We need to leave—for Meredith’s sake, if nothing else. Elven, these folk—they’ll hang us. I’m no one to them, and neither are ye. And ye, my dear,” she said, looking to Gwendolyn, “your heart’s in the right place, but these folk aren’t going to care whose daughter ye are. Guenther—he’s afraid of power. But the villagers—their anger will burn bright. Trust me—I’ve seen it before.”
“It’s decided, then,” Elven said. “We leave in the morning. I suggest we take today to make what preparations we need. I’ll find us horses. Gwendolyn, can you find bread and cheese? We’ll need food for the road.”
She nodded determinedly. “We’re going home, aren’t we,” she said.
“There’s nowhere else to go,” he said. “At least in Courerà we’ll be safe enough.”
So they spent that day making ready for the road. Elven knew they had not spoken of their plans to the guards, and realized he had no intention to: he would rather spend a week alone in the plains with Talya and Gwendolyn than a further day in their suspicious company. Instead, he made his way as surreptitiously as he could around the town, gathering supplies from several traders so as not to rouse suspicion. They had planned to meet that evening at their new inn, and depart first thing in the morning.
As the day wore on, Elven began to notice some of the townsfolk were looking at him oddly, their gaze following him down the street. Sometimes they would whisper to one another, or step indoors as he passed them, and he knew their time was growing short. By the time the clouds above began to darken with night, he was starting to think they should leave immediately, and not wait for the morning. He, Talya and Meredith took a meal at the inn, and Elven’s stomach began to churn for he had seen no sign of Gwendolyn for some hours. As they finished their supper, he stepped out onto the street, looking left and right into the darkness.
And then, out of nowhere, a figure sprang at him, grasping him tight and nearly knocking him down. In the dimness he could not make out who it was, but as he stumbled the stench of blood rose to his nostrils and fear flooded his thoughts. Pushing back, he sent the figure sprawling, and with a cry the person fell to the ground, and as the hood fell back from the face he saw with horror that it was Gwendolyn, her face spattered with blood, and a great stain at her breast.