Chapter 25: The Triage
Rustag waited in the shadow-filled alley off the bazaar. The looting had come to a head and now open brawling filled the marketplace. His arm throbbed and constricted. The venom was working its way up to his shoulder. He sighed, knowing what needed to be done. The giant squatted in the alley and tore a swath of fabric from his shirt, tying it tightly above the bite marks. His arm screamed in pain. He gritted his teeth and squeezed the wound. Pus squirted out and he moaned in agony, knowing his strength was waning.
His hand shook as he sucked in a breath to pinch once again, terrified of the white-hot burning that would result. How could something so small weaken his courage so much?
Peering out into the mob, he saw a familiar face, the soothsayer Samuel, riding atop a donkey. He was struggling to pass a group of thugs beating on each other, when one of them turned and grabbed Samuel’s robe, trying to yank him from his mount.
Rustag grimaced. This, at least, was something he could weather. He stood and forced himself into the crowd. With a great sweep of his fist, he knocked Samuel’s attacker to the ground. Rustag grabbed the donkey’s bit, pulling both the beast and the old man back into the alley.
“Unhand us cur! I am the royal soothsayer,” Samuel tried to pull away Rustag’s hand, “I have urgent business at the castle!”
Rustag groaned as the pain shot through his arm again, “As does all of Gilead . . . hrumph”
Samuel’s eyes narrowed. “Do I know you?”
“Perhaps, my name is Rustag. Your face is known to me.”
Samuel’s eyes widened, “And your name to me.”
“I’ve been sent to lead you to our king.”
“Yes! Good!” Samuel nodded, “Is there a boy with him? A stranger with a strange tongue?”
“No. We left that one in his cell. He’ll keep . . . I think.” Rustag replied, closing his eyes as the venom seared its way through his veins. “The king lies dying, and the princess attends him.”
Samuel’s face went pale. “Then the rumors were true. What ails him?”
“Much of it is the same venom . . .” Rustag’s chest tightened as he gasped, “that courses through my wound.”
Samuel slid off Balaam’s back and gently laid his hands on Rustag’s massive arm. The wound pulsed at the prophet’s touch. Rustag moaned as Samuel studied it.
“The venom is strong but not fast. I have little succor to give you here. My balms are over a league away, no doubt it would reach your heart by then and well . . . ” Samuel shook his head. “Still I can slow its movements. Hold still.” Samuel breathed in and brought his mouth close to the bite, before breathing out a single word.
The word echoed down the alleyway and Rustag instantly felt the hairs across his body stand on end. The pain dulled and his breath flowed more easily. A slight chill moved across his arm and into his chest
“What did you do to me?” Rustag breathed easier.
“I spoke a word of the Maker.” Samuel replied, “A word of healing.”
“The Maker?” Rustag chuckled. “The Maker abandoned us to our folly. Condemned us to . . . ourselves.”
Samuel smiled and shook his head. “Until this night I might have agreed with you, but I’ve heard his voice with my own ears now. I’ve seen his final words with my eyes!” Samuel pulled his scroll from his robe and unrolled the newest portion for the giant to see.
The words glimmered across the parchment, and Rustag’s mouth dropped.
“I believe a new speaker has come.” Samuel continued as he stowed the scroll in his robe again, “The Logos has been restored, and I must see that Gilead follows in kind.”
“I’m no scribe,” Rustag replied, deep in thought, “but I believe you.”
Samuel looked out to the ongoing riot in the streets. “I fear this route will get me no farther.”
Rustag nodded at the opposite end of the alleyway. “We can take the temple road, through the cemetery . . . it runs closer to the castle’s perimeter and opens to its courtyard . . . the princess hides the king in the broken spire there.”
Balaam shook his head and snorted, “I’ll not venture there a second time, thank you kindly. My last jaunt had me almost killed by things I’d rather not see again.”
“Talking donkey?” Rustag’s eyes widened, “Perhaps the poison runs through my head now.”
“Ah, yes, I’m so accustomed to Balaam, I’ve forgotten he’s a bit of a shock when people first meet him,” Samuel said, distracted, as he stared down the dark alley, studying the graveyard in the distance.
Rustag followed his gaze to the towering alabaster crypts and gravestones that were silent amid the chaos everywhere else. Not even birds seemed to intrude into that quarter. The gate to the cemetery creaked open with a passing breeze.
“I think whatever you saw, Balaam, has left.” Samuel turned to face them again, “At least I hope so. That path is the most direct and time is of the essence now. The words I spoke over you slowed the poison. It didn’t stop it completely. Can you make it to the Ambassador’s Square, near the western gate? In the clamor, I heard some say a healing tent is being erected there.”
Rustag nodded, “I could . . . yes. But my duty is to the princess . . . I cannot leave her.”
“Your duty is also to the cause she serves. You’ve a strong hand and a good heart. I’d hate to see you succumb to your wounds. We’ll have need of you soon I’d wager.”
“Perhaps then…” Rustag looked down, clenched his fist, testing his own grip. “I see the truth in what you say. Tell the princess I will return.”
“I will,” Samuel turned to Balaam and patted him on the neck, “Now forward, friend. We still have quite a walk in front of us.”
“It’ll be a run if I have anything to say about it,” Balaam replied.
The giant watched as the old man and his donkey strode forward into the shadows, and for the first time in years, he smiled.
* * * * * * * *
Samuel spotted the princess’s face peering from the slightly opened doorway of the broken tower. They had traversed the cemetery without incident and much to Balaam’s apprehension, the once locked gate leading to the castle district now lay on the ground, ripped from its hinges – as if some powerful force had rammed through them and escaped out into the night. Samuel saw that the mob ahead of him filled the archway leading to the castle’s courtyard, but no eyes were on the broken spire, that rose within its perimeter, several yards back. The crowd’s anger was palpable as they screamed for blood. Mariselle’s voice echoed outward from within the courtyard, her soothing tone seemed to only feed their hatred.
Samuel wondered how soon that hatred would be redirected toward them. The witch had a way with words. The venom on her lips could confuse as well as kill.
Alexandra motioned for Samuel and Balaam to enter as she quickly opened the door. Without a word, the two made their way through the crowd, and to the tower doorway, she ushered them in and quickly shut the door again.
“Thank the Maker, I was wondering if Rustag had found you. Is he far behind?” she asked.
Samuel smiled. “Yes, our paths crossed, though I never imagined a jailor could be so overwhelming. He’s somewhat the worse for wear. I sent him to the Ambassador’s Square by the western gate. He can be treated there, and I think the men stationed round will have more of a need for him than us. Gilead is under attack.”
Alexandra’s mouth dropped. “No, the Amorite blockade? I knew they had surrounded Gilead, but the negotiations . . . ”
“Were a ruse, meant to keep us pacified until they were ready to strike. This war was a long time coming, and we’re not nearly prepared for it.” Samuel looked past Alexandra to the king lying on a pile of hay, shivering slightly under her cloak.
“Samuel? You can see my father?”
Samuel smiled at her. “The Maker is good, his ways unknowable, his hand delivers.” He moved to the king’s side.
“Then there is some good in this horrid night,” Alexandra nodded, taking it in stride. She moved closer to her father. “Mariselle has been poisoning him - a mixture of devil roots and serpent’s venom. He’s delirious now, fitful and hardly breathing.” Her eyes filled with tears.
“Hello, my lord. I’m happy to see your countenance again,” Samuel said to the king.
Braeden’s gaze slowly focused on Samuel’s face, “Samuel? Is it really you?”
“Yes, my liege.” Samuel took the king’s hand and kissed the royal signet ring on his finger.
“I thought you were dead,” Braeden smiled.
“Not yet M’lord. The Maker has entrusted me with a final task,” Samuel said. “I must ready Gilead for battle and anoint my successor.”
“Successor?” The king feebly shook his head. “I know I stand at death’s door. I have one charge more for you as well. Come closer . . . ” The king motioned for Samuel who bowed close to Braeden’s whispering mouth.