Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chapter 7b: Almost Free

The third key opened the door and within minutes the guards, except for the ones holding Sharky, stood outside their cells. The man thrashed and slammed his head against the bars, silently biting at the freed prisoners. With the prisoners free, he fought and raged worse than ever, struggling to get to the men behind him; the ones not protected by the iron bars.

Stiles tried to reason with him, standing a safe distance away. “Come on, Sharky. It’s us. We want to help.”

He snapped at Stiles, biting his tongue in half. The bloody mass bounced off his shoulder and fell to the floor. Without a tongue to pad his bites, Sharky’s teeth snapped together with loud clicks. Blood ran over his bottom lip and speckled his mouth with every bite.

“STOP IT! Quit or you’re gonna bleed to death.”

The madman kept biting and fighting, battling to free his arms.

Stiles grabbed Horn’s shoulder. “Get another sheet off a cot and stuff it in his mouth. It might slow down the bleeding. Use what’s left to cover him up so we don’t have to touch him.”

Horn ran to a cell and came back with the linen. He wadded a handful and shoved it into Sharky’s mouth between bites. He threw the rest of the sheet over the man’s head and shoulders. Horn grabbed his arms, pinning them to his sides.

Stiles turned to the four men, still trapped in the cell. “Blade, help Gorney up and get ready to run out of the cell. Arolyn, get ready to let him go.”

A frown curled Arolyn’s lips. He didn’t look happy about the order, but he nodded and grabbed the end of the sheet.

Owl and Blare helped Horn hold Sharky while Stiles unlocked the cell, “Arolyn, let him go.”

Arolyn pulled the sheet away from Sharky’s arms. The moment his arms became free he reached back and tried to grasp the men holding him against the cell. Owl and Blare grunted as they pinned his flailing arms to his side. Horn pulled the struggling man backward.

With the doorway cleared, the four prisoners ran from the cell. Once they were out Horn moved to the door and pushed Sharky in. Stiles slammed the door closed and locked it.

Sharky stumbled, blindly making his way back to the door. He looked like a drunken ghost as he stumbled around the cell with the sheet covering him from head to waist. He slammed into the bars and stuck his arms through; his hands clasped and grabbed for the guards again. The bloody, puckered sheet around his mouth moved and squirmed, but didn’t fall out.

Horn spoke first. “Look at that. He ain’t even bothering with the sheet. It’s like he don’t notice it.”

Stiles looked at Gorney. “We’ll worry about him when we get out of here. Royd, bandage Gorney up, then we’ll get some help for Sharky.”

When a tourniquet and bandage had been put on Gorney’s arm, they walked up the stairs to the front room of the dungeon. A wooden door stood between two large windows, facing the training yard. The windows let in a drab light that painted the room in deep shadows. A table sat against one wall with a deck of cards strewn over its surface and a half empty mug of ale. Their weapons and armor hung on the opposite wall.

Stiles walked to the door and stopped as a woman passed by one of the windows. She wasn’t a soldier. The chin and the front of her pale blue dress glistened in the midday sunlight. Both were coated in blood.

He ducked below the window and motioned the other guards to do the same. As they squatted down he crawled to the window and peeked over its edge. The woman’s back faced him as she shuffled to the walls of the training yard. A dozen other people aimlessly shambled back and forth around her. Most of them were soldiers, but none looked like they knew where they were. A distant scream broke the silence.

“What da hell was dat?” Oswald’s blurted from his prone position near the stairs.

Stiles glared over his shoulders at the man. Between clenched teeth he hissed, “Shhhhh”

Stiles peeked over the windowsill again. The woman had stopped with her head cocked to the side as if listening. Moments later, she continued her ambling gait toward the wall.

Blade crawled next to Stiles and looked through the window for himself, then gasped, “What’s going on? Is the whole city infected?”

Stiles turned and sat with his back against the wall while Blade took in the scene. The other men crawled toward the windows for a look while Oswald stayed near the stairs, keeping to himself.

A decision needed to be made, but it couldn’t be made lightly. Stiles had no idea how much of the city might be infected, and he didn’t want to enter the training yard to be swamped in crazy people. Not only that, but did they have the right to hurt those people? They were sick and needed help. If there was a chance for them to get well he could ruin that by taking their lives. On the other hand, he couldn’t let them attack him or his men. He didn’t even want them touching him or his men.

Even if they did get through the training yard, what then? He hadn’t seen any of the city watch dealing with these people. He had to assume, within the few hours they had been incarcerated, the entire city had fallen prey to the strange illness. If that was the case, then the best thing for him and his men to do would be to get away from the city and into the sparsely populated countryside.

He peeked over the window once more, looking toward Castle Renier. The castle stood a little way off, but it sat higher than the other structures and was easy to spot. He didn’t see any movement and almost gave up, but a flash caught his eye. Someone leaned out of one of the tower windows, looking down into the city. He couldn’t see much from where he crouched, but the person seemed to be in control and actively looking at the carnage that Renier had become.

Stiles sat down and leaned against the wall. “There are still people at the castle.”

“So?” Gorney muttered. Sweat coated his face causing his pale skin to glisten in the dim light. Stiles didn’t reprimand him for his outburst, thinking it was the pain talking.

“We’ve got to get to the castle. The Duke may need us.”

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Chapter 7a: Sharky Awakens

"...and while the righteous gather in their temples, seeking the protection of their Gods, the children shall rise up against their parents with unrighteous vengeance and hatred."

~Secret Holy Scriptures of the Waken Book

"What we gonna do if he don't get up?" Horn stuck his head against the bars of the cell he shared with five others, pointing his nose in the direction of the motionless Sharkey.

Stiles could always count on the portly warrior to break his concentration, but Horn did have a point. Sharky was the only person they had seen since being locked up, and he should have been relieved hours ago. When he collapsed on the floor, they had yelled and made as much noise as they could, but no help came. The sense of impending doom that Stiles had been struggling with became worse. Something wasn’t right.

“I ain’t worried none. The relief guard’ll get here any minute an’ all this’ll sort itself out,” Gorney said in his ever-relaxed tone. He sat on the stone floor in the cell adjoining Stiles with his elbows propped on his knees.

Oswald moved next to Stiles, pushed his head through the bars and waved a drunken hand in Sharky’s direction. He belched before slurring, “I…I ain’t so sure dat ol’ Sharky’s gonna make it tru dis one. Looks ta me like a feller I knew when I was sailin’ wit those mariners. We comes up to dis island and one of da feller’s gots himself stung by dis little flea lookin’ thing. Next thing we know, the guy’s all pukin’ up blood and gaspin’ fer air and…”

“Shut up, Oswald.” Stiles couldn’t take another one of the old soldier’s stories.

“But all I was sayin…”

“Yeah, and I’m telling you to shut up.”

“You ain’t my cap…captain. You just barely outrank…”

“Shut up, Oswald.” Ash whispered the words from the bunk he sat on across the room, in a cell he shared with Horn and two others. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, everyone listened. Though Stiles outranked everyone in the room, he still hesitated when giving orders to Ash. The lanky man was cold, distant and self-assured. On top of that, he was a quick and deadly swordsman.

A frown skewed Oswald’s face, a mask of disgust. The old man’s mouth opened to say something then snapped shut. He looked at the ceiling as if in deep thought, then dropped his eyes back to Ash. Again his mouth opened to say something then suddenly closed. Stiles expected the old man to cower down, but instead he threw his arm out toward Ash, his bleary gaze swept across the men as he mumbled, “Awwww…ta hell with ya all!” Then he plopped down on the cot, a sour expression on his face and his arms folded across his chest.

An awkward silence blanketed the room. Everyone leaned against the bars or sat on the cots. No one had anything to say that would change the fact that they were locked in a dungeon with no way out, so they said nothing.

A scraping noise broke the tense silence. The sound wasn’t loud, but it got everyone’s attention.

Sharky’s foot twitched and slid an inch.

Horn grasped the bars with his large hands and pushed his wide head against them, “Aye, Sharky. You okay?”

Sharky didn’t respond. Instead he drug a knee to his waist and scooted forward, into the open area past the barrel. Without a sound, he placed his hands by his shoulders and pushed his torso up. His head hung as though his neck were broken, while strands of blood and gore hung from his open lips.

Stiles stepped away from the bars. In the next cell, Gorney said, “Let us out of here Sharky. Give me the keys, and we’ll get you some help.”

Sharky’s head snapped up. He looked over his shoulder at Gorney with cloudy, almost pupiless eyes. He rose on wobbly legs and staggered across the dungeon, toward the cell Gorney shared with three others.

Stiles stomach clenched with panic as Gorney stuck his arm through the bars, hand open to accept the keys. He couldn’t identify anything about the sight that caused his fear, but something about the scene seemed horribly wrong.

Sharky reached forward and grabbed Gorney’s hand, his other hand clasped Gorney’s elbow. Sharky jerked Gorney’s forearm to his mouth and sank his teeth into the flesh until they snapped together. Gorney screamed, yanking his arm as blood gushed over Sharky’s lips and nose. He wouldn’t let go.

Arolyn, Blade, and Wolf ran to Gorney and pulled him back as Sharky chewed and swallowed. His head lowered for another bite. Grasping the bars in a white knuckled grip, Stiles watched as Sharky clung to his victim’s arm while the three men pulled Gorney into the cell and away from the deranged guard.

The pale, dull-eyed man didn’t give up. Both arms reached through the bars. His hands grasped for the four men standing at the far end of the cell; his mouth constantly opening and closing, snapping at empty air.

Stiles knew why he had an uneasy feeling about Sharky. The snapping teeth brought it all back. The lepers had acted the same way. The behavior had seemed vicious and bloodthirsty for men who were so blank and empty. He couldn't forget the raw violence of the lepers. Violence that lacked purpose. The sort of violence Sharky had suddenly displayed.

“What the hell’s wrong with Sharky?” Horn bellowed.

“Can’t you see? He’s got the leprosy!” Owl shrieked from the cell across the room.

Migel grabbed Stile’s arm and twisted him around. “What we gonna do?”

Stiles couldn’t think through the terror and shock. It’s contagious. The stuff is contagious! Just a breath or a touch and I might catch it. A drop of blood, a trace of spit or breath on the wind might have given us the sickness. Any of us could have it and not know it. I could be rotting from the inside out at this very minute.

Migel shook Stiles. “Sir…what are we gonna do?”

Like a man waking from a dream Stiles snapped back to the present situation. We have to get those keys!

He turned to the four guards. Three of the men stood with their back against the wall of their cell, as far away from the snapping and grasping Sharky as they could get. Gorney sat with his legs splayed across the floor, glaring at Sharky and holding his open wound as blood dribbled between his clenched fingers. “Arolyn, Blade, grab Sharky’s arms and pull them into the cell. Hold him tight, so he can’t move. Wolf, when they get Sharky pinned to the bars you grab the keys from his belt.”

Stiles had trouble calling the deranged man Sharky. The man had always been gruff and mean, a necessity when employed as a dungeon guard, but not insane. The blood, hungry stare, grasping hands and chomping mouth had transformed him into another creature. Not a man any longer, but a wild thing; something violent and hungry, a rabid beast. He had to remind himself that the vicious thing was still Sharky and he needed help. The man might be cured if they could get him to a healer.

Arolyn and Blade moved forward. Both were good soldiers and didn’t question orders.

They had only taken a couple of cautious steps when Stiles stopped them. “Wait. Don’t touch him with your bare hands. Use the sheet on the cot.”

Arolyn turned and yanked the sheet off. He handed one end to Blade and they advance on Sharky. They grabbed his arms, using the sheet to protect themselves, and pulled the man tight against the cell. Their proximity maddened Sharky. He shoved his head against the bars. His jaws snapped open and closed with savage force and blood flowed between his crooked teeth as he bit into his tongue.

The men held him against the bars as Wolf slid between them. Cloth ripped as Wolf jerked the keys from Sharky’s belt. He tossed them to Stiles and backed away from the deranged man.

Stiles caught the key ring and turned to unlock his cell. He stopped and spun back to the men holding Sharky. “Don’t let him go. Wrap the sheet around his arms. Tight, so he can’t get away. I’ll let everyone else out and then we will deal with him and get you out.”

They nodded and began wrapping the sheet around Sharky’s arms.

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