Friday, January 1, 2016

Fiction Friday: The Hour of the Dog

For the earlier Robart of Hazelby tales, head to the Fiction Friday Index.

Those afflicted by black flux burned, then froze. They could not catch their breath and spent their days gasping for air as though being hounded by all the daimoni of hell. As the sickness raced through their veins, their limbs arched painfully. They shit black bile and vomited yellow bile. Their eyes were jaundiced, their pupils narrow and fixed on some distant point, some saving grace beyond the mortal pain that wracked their feeble decaying forms. One in five survived the sickness once it gripped them.

It seemed to strike at random, without thought or conscience. The prelates at first thought it might be carried in the miasmic vapors exhaled by the dying, or in their bile, but many who worked with the sick never felt its sting. The High Prelate of the island himself, the Priman of Wyranth, the Lord-prelate of Kingsbrook, Coren the Younger, tended the ill each morning before he withdrew to pray and study the ancient scripture for signs. He was never once afflicted with even a cough. Some said it was the Divinity, but the priests were comforted that they might see to the needs of the mortally stricken without fear that they too would fall.

Though it appeared, at last, to be subsiding, the flux lay in wait.

Those cursed with the flux were now housed in the temple itself. "If we do not move them inside, the rain will kill them," Corricus told the High Prelate. Coren relented and permitted the sick to be nursed in the halls of worship. Sickly-sweet clouds of incense perfumed every chamber. Ogust's Stone, standing proudly in the chancel, watched over hundreds of bandage-wound patients. Some stroked its ancient surface, hoping that some of the Divinity's power was still pinioned within it. A few who touched the stone survived, and spoke of it as a cure delivered by Divinity. Many who's calloused fingertips caressed the rock died.

"This superstition is like Gaudulf's arm all over again," Corricus complained. But there was no dissuading the healed from their belief in the sanctity of the site.

Coren the Younger advised his brother prelate not to be troubled. "The Divinity may not see us and may be unable to give us aid, but is it not in a way divine that so many are inspired by what they see as miracles? Let them turn their eyes to the World to Come, Corricus. What matter the means?"

Robart's days attained a near-perfect regularity. He woke each day before dawn. He joined the prelates as they sang the morning's praises to the Divine, their offices interrupted by the moaning of the ill. The chorus' seats had been removed to make more room for sickbeds. The chief cantor was forced to stand on a little wooden stool before Ogust's Stone to lead the mass. When morningsong ended, he went with the prelates into the sacristy to bathe in cold springwater and dress for the day. His own tunic and hosen were worn well through and quickly replaced with a cord belt and robe from the vestry.

After ablution (and a short prayer, these prelates seemed to pray at every step of every day) they immediately went to work. That was the first time Robart would see Sister Soera. Until then he could pretend his wife was still alive, or even wonder whether Aethelwyn was safe and well. They walked between the low sickbeds in pairs or trios. They lanced pustulant boils, rubbed flax oils on the burning flesh to dry it, fed the ill melon which a teacher called Thomis told Robart was "a cold food, and dry, inclined to shift the humors of the sufferer away from heat and wetness, as the black flux seems to run."

When this first feeding and treatment was done, the prelates and Robart broke their fast. Autumn rains were common that Amaan, so more often than not they dined under the covered tile roof of the refectory rather than in the open gardens. Thomis said, "'Tis a pity we must eat indoors, for I much miss the sunshine." Robart wondered that the man could be so attuned to the passage of weather when fire and sickness were stalking the land with the sword and the torch.

Fed, the prelates resumed their care. There were more ill altogether than healthy, at the beginning, but as the flux ran its course and many died, their numbers dwindled. They were refreshed from time to time by pilgrims stricken with the disease who came from downstream or the little hamlets that ringed Kingsbrook. There was a second break for supper in the afternoon. Another service followed, which Robart sometimes attended and sometimes avoided in favor of wandering the temple grounds.

Kingsbrook Temple was the finest palace Robart had ever seen. Hazelby Manor, Saint Gaudulf's, even Oldcastel itself didn't hold a flame to the great center of the Faith in Yewland. It was a sprawling construction, composed of several huge buildings, each intermingled with the others through courtyards and half-enclosed galleries of echoing stone. The outer walls, facing the town, were sheathed in marble, giving the temple a glorious Eastern presence. Within, there were domes covered with beaten bronze, a dormer for the prelates, even water that ran from a hidden wellspring to flow into the Kingsbrook, but not before providing the washing and drinking water for the cloister entire.

The only thing Kingsbrook was missing was monks and an abbot. Instead, there were the canons and the High Prelate himself. Coren was lame in one leg. His face was all jutting eyebrows and thin lips. He was the younger only in relation to his father, old Lord Coren Comber of Deeping Fell, who had been buried decades ago at the sight of the ancient battle. The canons were half-monk, half-priest, though Robart knew that many left the cloistered life with the gifts they had learned—history, literacy, theology—married, and made good for themselves working under some noble. Here, rather than an abbot prescribing the old rule of the East, was the master prelate of the entire island. Here was the chief school for clerics in Yewland, also. Hundreds of canons who had come to study where now engaged in very real acts of faith.

Robart first knew that the flux had taken a second flight when a young prelate named Andrau collapsed in the refectory. The stillness of silent contemplation was shattered by the boy's fall. His trencher spattered hot grease and porridge over the enamel-tiled floor. By that evening, the black boils had begun to form. This marked a change in the course of the sickness. From that moment on, no one was safe any longer. Uncaring, the sickness was, to rank or station. Humble and proud alike were felled.

An archprelate from Waterdeep died in agony. Fifteen canons in eight days were brought low. Some recovered and went back to work, weakness now deep in their limbs. Most went on to the World to Come. The great silence was broken in the refectory: at each meal, High Prelate Coren read from the sacred books. "Persevere," read he, "in the knowledge that your suffering cannot tie you to the world."

They began to dig great pits for the dead. No longer could they be interred one by one in the Kingsbrook tombyard. There were simply too many. Fifteen or twenty might die in an afternoon. The High Prelate sent Amalric to gather quicklime from the granite pits south of the town. The dead were piled in the earth and left to dissolve under the lime's fire. Let them not be taken by the daimoni.

This nearly broke Robart's spirit. Even cannonesses were not held safe from the sickness. The town entire was emptying in fear. Kingsbrook had been the center of the Faith on the island for centuries. Now, it was the heart of darkness. The oppressive bleakness weighed on Robart's soul. He tried to hide it from the others, but even the young squire Amalric was bowed over and bent with the burden.

He could not unburden himself to Sister Soera. She was already stricken, watching her sisters die left and right. Thank the Divine that the flux did not touch her. He began to speak with the dying instead. They would carry his secrets with them to the World to Come. It was in this way that he found Troylus, the prelate.

Troylus was a sickly looking man before he was felled by the flux. Laden with excess fat that melted from his bones like butter under the withering heat of his fever, he was a canon teacher who dressed all in black. He lay near to Ogust's Stone in the hall, his head turned toward it. "It's beneficial influences will wash through me," he explained to Robart. He was a learned man, if not a particularly pious one. When Robart confessed his fear to Troylus that first evening, Troylus replied, "There is nothing that can be done. The celestial thrones sit in bleak alignment. Now is the hour of the dog, my friend."

Robart grasped Troylus' wasted hand. It had been reduced to bone and skin. "What do you mean, master Troylus? Surely the Divinity wouldn't—"

The priest laughed. His voice was like a hacking summoned up from the depths of hell. "The Divinity doesn't care. Look around you, friend. The stars govern the world. They send their rays down to us, which affects the humors in our bodies. Your spirit—the stuff sloshing around in your —"and here Troylus dissolved into a fit of hacking. Robart cradled his head and fed him spiced wine. Troylus thanked him and drifted off into a peaceless sleep.

Over the next few days, Robart spoke with Troylus again and again. "The dog-star," the astrologer-priest told him, "sends its poisonous rays down upon us. Normally it waits until the heat of summer, but this year it must have come early. If only I could use my tools, I would be able to determine when this cursed plague would end."

But it didn't end. It went on and on. And as they tended the dying, men came from the battles in Seapoint. Highlord Marten was defeated. The Skraels were here to stay for the long winter. Amalric joked that they would be frozen out of Seatower before too long, but Robart wasn't so sure. Neither was Troylus. "Skraeling folk are from the frozen lands already. What do they care for a little snow? Without someone to deny them food, some force abroad in the land, they'll pluck the farms bare and live in their halls till the snowmelt and spring."

The survivors from the Highlord's army who came to Kingsbrook, mostly knights and men-at-arms, were housed in the new chapel. It was a little building, put together at the urging of the last king, Roald, and bore his name over the doorway. Its candles were meant to benefit Roald's soul in the World of Forms where he must yet be purged of his intellectual sins. Robart declined to mix with the gore-covered men of the Highlord's folly. They scared him.

He learned, through Troylus, that the Highlord's army was ambushed and routed near the River Rudd. The rains had swollen the banks and washed away many of the old fords, but the Skraels were adept at moving across water in their knife-ships. While Marten was crossing his army from one side to the other, Skraels had descended on both the van- and rear-guards and obliterated them. Few had escaped. Some doubted whether the Highlord still lived at all. Many more were drowned in the river when they could not make for the shore.

"What of Lady Sorrel?"

Troylus coughed up a gobbet of blood. "She lives still, leading raids against the Skraeling holds in Seapoint. Many of the men here are seeking to join her. Those who aren't tucking tail and heading home."

And then, one morning, Troylus was gone. He was not there upon his pallet, head turned to Ogust's Stone, when Robart woke in the morning. Robart reasoned that he must have died in the dark watches of the night. To see yet another fall—this one a friend—was too much for him. Aethelwyn, everyone in Hazelby, his wife, his son, Highlord Marten, all in whom he'd placed his love and his trust... He broke down and wept by the altar. No one disturbed him. It was not an uncommon sight.

When Sister Soera asked him what troubled him, he told her: "Troylus. He's gone." The sister smiled secretly and led Robart to the refectory. There, beneath the stone pulpit from which the High Prelate read the Life of Calomanis, was seated Troylus. His great empty jowls sagged like the cheeks of a hunting hound. His eyes were sunken and hollow, but the rheumy cough was gone. Though he clutched a walking stick in one boney hand, he ate with vigor and liveliness. When he saw Robart he laughed. His eyes crinkled.

"Goodman Robart! The hour of the dog has passed me by," he said. Robart wept tears of joy. "I live! And so do you! And so does Sister Soera here." The haggard astrologer winked at Robart, who felt himself turn brilliant red at the implication. Of course he'd told Troylus of his unnatural attachment to the healing-sister.

The provost of the temple, seated down the table, banged his fist upon the wood for silence. The old man glared at them, as if to shame them into peace. But Robart was too happy to be fearful of withered priests. He embraced Troylus with abandon, crushed the man to his breast. Troylus groaned and laughed, all at once.

The hour of the dog had ended. There were only a few more who took ill. The deaths mounted, but soon there were more survivors than corpses. Little by little, the flux gave way. Whatever its mysterious cause, fire and lime had stamped it out. The tension in Robart's heart began to relax. He would survive. The sister had survived. Troylus was alive! And then, as he began to realize his position, Robart once again began to wonder: what could he do? Where could he go? His home was under foreign yoke, his family dead and buried, his dreams crushed down to frigid earth by the vicissitudes of war and time.

So he sat in thought, troubled, but alive.

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