The guard led the way through a series of low stone buildings to the high walls of the keep. To one side they could see a stockyard overflowing with lowing cattle. On the other side, a gang of children were playing a game involving kicking a ball of rags around in a flagstone courtyard. They walked into the keep and Callindra noted the heavily armed guards on both sides of the door.
He brought them through a series of corridors and into a large hall. Fireplaces burned on each end and the windows were wide open, letting in a pleasant breeze and plenty of sunlight. A tired looking man in rumpled purple and gold robes sat in a carved chair with purple cushions.
“What is this then captain?” He said, looking up from a cup of wine.
“Travelers my lord Mayor. They’re clean, I checked them personally.” He gestured toward Tryst, “This one here is a healer. He says he might be able to help us.”
“Is that so?” He said, looking up at them. “I see, that would be most welcome.”
“I am Tryst te ‘Chern.” Tryst said, “These are my companions Vilhylm, Cronos and Callindra. We are on a mission of some import, however I would be most honored if you would allow me to attempt to help your people to earn our room and board for the night.”
“Wonderful! I am Iason, and this is my guard captain Lucca. Please allow me to show you and your friends to refreshments and once you are ready…” A look of hope passed over him as well, “Well, if you can help us we will forever be in your debt.”
Lucca set his wine cup down and stood from his chair, leading them down a short hallway, and down a flight of stairs. The smell of soap and wood fires made Callindra very aware of her filthy, blood splattered state and she saw with relief that they were being led first to a huge bathing pool.
The water was hot enough to make her wince, especially when her wounds touched it. It was a relief to sluice the dust, dirt and blood from herself though and then to briefly soak in the pool. Once she was clean, she returned to find Tryst waiting for her with a needle and thread.
“We need to take care of those gashes across your stomach at very least.” He said, “Now that they’re clean I can stitch them up.”
Callindra sighed, she’d been hoping to get away with just a quick bandage and then be able to go and eat but wasn’t surprised at his insistence. She was only wearing her chest wrap, having anticipated Tryst wanting to patch her up and sighed again as she lay down on a rough wooden bench in the changing room.
His hands were deft and gentle and she was able to relax in spite of the pain of the needle and thread. She wondered at how comfortable she was with Tryst, even in this state of undress and vulnerability. There was no question in her mind that he was treating her as an equal; as he would his own brother.
This was what she had wished so hard for during her training. Callindra felt her eyes sting with emotion, she had never dared dream that she would actually find true companions like these and now more than ever she knew she would fight to the bitter end for any one of her friends.
“All done. Now go and get some food. Red meat, hearty ale, bread and vegetables.” He said, pulling her from her reverie. “Nothing strenuous for at least a day.”
“You’ve told me all that before.” She said, her voice muffled from beneath the tunic she was pulling over her head.
“And you’ve ignored every time, at least the part about taking it easy.” Tryst said with a smile, “That’s why I feel the need to repeat myself.”
Callindra laughed, “Fair enough my friend. Thank you for your help, as always.”
“You bleed with us Callindra, it’s the least I can do.” Said Tryst, putting his needle and thread away carefully in a small cedar wood box. “Now let’s get food together. I’m worried about what I’ll find when I get to the infirmary.”
The others were already in the main hall, enjoying a meal with Iason and a few others they hadn’t met before. Apparently there was an abundance of cattle and a dearth of fodder, for the meat was plentiful and fresh but there weren’t many vegetables. The meal was largely consumed in silence for Callindra and her friends were hungry and the folk of the keep seemed to be intentionally keeping to themselves. After the plates had been cleared away, Tryst rose and turned to Iason.
“If you would lead me to your wounded, I will see what I can do for them.” He said.
“I’ll … just come to see where you’ll be.” Callindra said. She was getting a strange feeling and decided she wanted to see where they were bringing her friend.
The infirmary wasn’t far away, and it only had four occupants. They were all children though, laying on beds heaped high with blankets and large fires roared on both ends of the room. The children shivered in spite of the heat and the extra coverage.
“I will be fine Callindra.” Tryst said, “Go and get some rest. I think you took the worst of it out there.”
She nodded slowly and retreated, moving back to the main keep and finding her bed. Her body was screaming for sleep and she knew if she didn’t rest she wouldn’t be able to be worth a damn the next day. Even with a good night’s rest she would barely be able to dance the Korumn the next day.
Removing her boots, she fell into bed, laying Brightfang’s hilt on the pillow next to her. When sleep came, she wrestled with troubling dreams filled with green eyed monsters and strange children who left burning footprints wherever they walked.
The sunlight streaming through her window awakened Callindra, and she sat up, disentangling herself from the twisted mess of her sheets and blankets. Her room had a mirror and she glared at her reflection, hair looking like she’d spent the night in a gale, not in a quiet bed, eyes with dark circles underneath them…
She stretched and grimaced at the tightness in her abdomen. After running through some basic Stances, she went to look for some breakfast, and her friends. Cronos was eating a hearty breakfast, and Callindra sat next to him and poured a mug of tea.
“You look like shit.” Cronos said.
“And a mighty fine morning to you!” Callindra retorted, “When did Tryst get to bed?”
“Eh? What do you mean come to bed?” Asked Cronos, “He’s been at it all night again.”
Callindra shoved the rest of the bread in her mouth and stood, grabbing her teacup. Adjusting Brightfang’s scabbard over her shoulder, she headed for the door. The feeling of unease was back and she needed to see Tryst to set herself at ease. Cronos shrugged and returned to his breakfast.
Hurrying across the courtyard, Callindra paused briefly at the door to the infirmary and took a deep, calming breath. “It’s just your imagination fool girl.” She muttered, “These people have been nothing but hospitable after the initial unpleasantness at the gate.”
Opening the door, she was hit by a wave of heat. The air had a strange, sweet scent that made her nostrils burn. Beneath that sweet smell was the unmistakable reek of brimstone. Tryst knelt by one of the beds, an assortment of medical supplies arranged about him. Callindra approached him on cat’s feet, not making the slightest sound. When she put her hand on his shoulder, he started slightly and looked up.
“Oh, Callindra.” He said, his voice thick with weariness. “You startled me. I was nearly done here. Nearly done.”
“Tryst.” She hissed, “You need to get out of here!”
The closest figure sat up in bed. He was a boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen, one strongly built but now his muscles hung loose on a frame ravaged by fever. He looked at her and she saw his eyes for the first time. They were pools of emerald fire. “Water.” He croaked.
Callindra whirled, rising from a kneeling position, drawing her sword and striking in the same motion (Dance of the Coiled Viper) and removed his head from his shoulders. “GO damn you Tryst, they’re infected!”
“No, no, I was praying. I used magic. I’m sure…” Tryst trailed off. In spite of their size difference, Callindra hauled him to his feet and shoved him to the door grimacing at the pain as the cuts across her stomach tore their stitches open. He seemed disoriented, as though he had no idea what was going on.
The second bedridden figure was struggling to rise against the heaps of blankets, and so was the third. She panicked, turning from Tryst and only waiting long enough to see the shine of scintillating green beneath their eyelids before killing them as well. A crash sounded from across the room and Callindra turned to see a nurse standing there, staring at her in horror with a tray of breakfast scattered on the floor at her feet.
Callindra ran to her, flinging the drops of blood off Brightfang’s blade with a practiced flick of her wrist. Grabbing the nurse’s head she looked into her eyes and saw a flicker of burning green.
“No, it’s not in me.” The nurse whispered, “I swear it’s not in me.” She broke into tears, “Please, my fam-” Callindra didn’t hesitate any longer, she couldn’t allow herself to. She cut the woman down.
Shaking with suppressed emotion, she went to where Tryst was leaning listlessly against the wall. Reaching a trembling hand out, she lifted his face to look into hers. Her heart nearly stopped. His eyes had an emerald sheen to them. Not a flickering flame like the others, but it was unmistakable. Callindra let out a strangled sound, releasing him and raising her sword in both hands.
Could she do it? Was he infected? What if she didn’t kill him? Once it took him over… She gripped Brightfang so hard her knuckles hurt. Her sword wavered in her grip and finally she let out an explosive breath.
“I can’t do it.” She sobbed, letting her arms fall to her sides, “Gods and Demons, I killed them for the same but I can’t do it to you.”
Tryst shook his head and stared up at her, “What’s that?” She looked at him again, his eyes were clear. Dropping her sword, Callindra pried his eyelids wide and stared intently at them. There was no sign of the green tint. She couldn’t doubt herself. The others had been infected, they HAD been. She had done the right thing.
“We have to go.” She said, “You need rest and these people… we need to go.”
“Callindra!” Said Tryst, “Callindra what have you DONE?” He was looking past her at the carnage she had left in her wake.
“They were infected Tryst.” She said, “They would have killed you, killed me, killed us all!” As if in response to her cries, one of the corpses began moving.
“Get out!” She shouted, “Get out NOW, you’re in no condition to handle this right now!”
“I’m not leaving you.” He said quietly.
“Go. Get. The others.” She said, her voice deadly quiet. “You don’t even have a weapon or a shield, let alone your armor. I can hold them but only for a short time. GO!”
Tryst nodded grudgingly and ran as best he could. The monsters that had been children threw off their bedding with violence that belied their size. None of the former weakness remained, as if they had been storing the power taken by the fever and waiting to release it now. Callindra grimly took Brightfang in a two handed grip and faced her enemies.