There is a foot note within this folio that indicates that Vaush put this part of his story to paper while passing a winter season in Ptolus. The exact date is not mentioned but a priest by the name of Kiriniklas sealed the document. I have sent a letter to the monastery requesting records concerning Vaush’s visit and the priest that assisted him. It is curious that Vaush would seek such assistance. He has never paid any heed or respect to the faith of Anglandia, the Empire or any other.
~G.M. Frasier, Professor Emeritus, Queen’s College, Cadris
Ring around the rosy; pocket full of posy.
I wonder if children would sing that song if they knew its meaning. I think not. I suspect most would curl into a frightened ball and wale for those that had no power to protect them.
Plague. No one would say it. In fact most went to considerable effort to make sure the word was not uttered. Though it was. In dark places. That is what it was you know; though even the history books call the Hartwich Nightmare an outbreak or an infestation. Anything but a plague.
We went out that evening after the Smythe ship burned to the waterline. Couldn’t have happened to nicer fiend if you ask me. We were better prepared. More so than I thought. The baron had mustered both the watch and the troops. Twenty knights in armor arrived at Robert’s meeting. Clad for war, they were. Not a single one of them had less then three weapons upon them. The honorable baron brought his son Simon; though Amber and Ruby were noticeably absent from the festivities. That is not fair. No one was in a festive mood and Stratum’s father, the foppish but effective wizard Brannigan made it clear what we faced.
For his part, Robert’s contingent were of a rougher crowd. These were men of mean origins. I doubted that most could read or work out the math unless there was some profit in it. But they knew how to fight and it would not be in a courtly manner. No these were men for whom violence was a way of life. Just as much so as the knights of the barons company. And there was profit in it. There would be little coin, but these were their streets. This was their bread and butter so to speak and there was nothing to be made in a plague ridden wasteland where the dead walked. I heard among Robert’s men that there were members of the aristocracy there that, if found gutted in a gutter in the narrows, they would not be unhappy. It was made clear however, that this was not the night for such things. Robert brought hard men and the baron; well he brought soldiers.
Myself I had been fitted with new leathers. Black and ridged I was an eight year old bedecked as a killer among rough men who had done their work with a blade, bludgeon or ax. None spoke of my presence and I was pleasantly surprised as the men that spoke to me did so with some deference. No doubt it was because I was obviously Robert’s; whose reputation reached even as far as the baron himself.
Yes, there were two strong men. East and west and Hartwich in the middle; who ruled here? Men knew of Lord Rush and Robert as his man. Rush was a mystery; dangerous to an extreme to be sure; but an enigma; an abstract. Robert was of the flesh and real with boots on the ground. He was the possibility of injury and perhaps death in a much more immediate fashion. I wondered if Robert knew the subtleties of his reputation. Despite Rush’s power few knew him and most would go their entire lives without ever meeting the creature or laying eyes upon it. Robert was another matter. It is easy to set aside the nightmares you do not see. Those that stalk the shadows at the edges of your blurred vision. Harder it is to ignore the man with the blades at your throat. No for all of Lord Rush’s power, I would say that in the day to day of fear’s administration Robert was the greater threat. Though I never knew him to conjure or craft; Robert’s own tools were of a more immediate lethality; like a fanged serpent in the tall grass.
The greetings between the two groups were cool at best. The Baron knew of Robert at the very least and I detected not a little anomosity between them. There was respect to be certain, but each man saw his own leverage to be the superior. The armored knights and the watch stared at the perceived rabble of Robert’s contingent. While the killers watched with wary and murderous eyes Hartwich’s warrior class. I saw no purpose in this and strode forward. I greeted Simon and Stratum as I would any other. Simon was well bedecked in armor while Stratum and taken his father’s fashion sense. There stares. Few could understand the dynamic that existed between the three of us. Some were unsure and all were to bound by group protocals to make mention or attempt to halt our interaction.
That night, as he had before, Brannigan proved his worth. The streets were narrow and the building huddled together like aged and besotted sailors. We could hear the sea and the usual aroma of brine and tar were corrupted by something else. It was a sour smell of meat gone wrong; the fiberous odor that clung to the nostrels and lingered about the clothes; like the worst of the charnel houses. I felt the pull behind my navel and knew that the wizard was working his craft. The pressure spread; as it always does up the spine and behind the eyes. Then like the maker himself there was light.
Strands of blue reached from a cube in Brannigan’s hands to twist and coil down the narrow allies. They traced their path into homes and warehouses. Each one a led to a clutch of the dead. They say that it is called a murder of crows, a pod of whales and even a wisdom of owls. What then do you call the dead who will not rest? I have no name for it but plague and that word was not uttered back then.
It was decided between the Baron and Robert; a knight and knave of swords, how the hunt would proceed. I listened and watched. I could smell the fear, though not a single man made to leave. Both contingents were content to follow their respective leaders; it was out of a greater fear, honor or respect to a man.
We followed the lines. Robert’s group spread into warrens of Hartwich. These were the deep dark places and the men that Robert had selected knew these places as intimetly as the Baron knew his court. Considering he had invited Veronica into his household upon numerous occasions, perhaps the ragged and pox ridden rabble of Robert’s troop were more familiar then he of their fiefdom.
In those narrow places we found them. Do you kill the dead? Are they destroyed or banished? None among could say. It is considered ill mannered to speak of the dead; but it is more so for the dead to no know their place. We owe them truth and no more. These walking dead were cut down. It became apparent that the thicker or brighter Brannigan’s lines were, the more of these charnel whores we would find.
There was something wrong; even beyond the restless corpses. They were different. Smythe’s vessel had been infested with the broken and rotted; a vile concoction of rotted death and unholy blood letting. These that now roamed the deep byways of Hartwich were not so desiccated. They ravenous, but clean or as clean as any of the living in the narrow places. They shuffled and shambled; they were less than the living but more the dead.
I watched and I listened. I learned. Killing these took little effort and they bled and spit up black icor, smelling of a juicy grave. These narrow subterranean byways were new to me and even then knew their use. I would learn more. I learned that they led to the Rush estates. There were no grills, no portculis to bar the way. The dead could walk up to the estate unmolested. Rush’s wards were shown to stun the walking dead but no destroy them. Inwardly I smiled as I had stumbled upon something that even Robert had missed. Preditory and lethal to be sure, but not infallible. Another step had been taken.
As the night wore on and the crescent made her way across the starry sky the blue lines began to fade. Lone members of the dead were found; stragglers, each one slaughtered where it stood. The narrows were burning. People, the living had been displaced. The clutches of the walking dead were all centered about temples or make shift alters. These were centers of charity and each belonged to the sea goddess Tymora. The dead had gathered by the sea and its patroness. To what end? It was discussed. Rush had, in the recent past, a disagreement with the knights and priests of the Tymorian church. Rumor said he had exacted a terrible revenge. It was well reported that not a single Tymorian priest remained with in the city.
These were lines of logic. They led to a dreadful place.
- Sealed at the request of Iskander Vaush, esquire
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