Something wet drops on the bare skin of my arms. What is it? Water? How is water falling from the sky?
The flames. The flames are so hot they’re melting the snow before it touches the ground. I don’t know how that’s possible. I’ve never seen water fall from the sky. Always it’s been snow. Is this what the end of the world is like?
I see a flash of Patr telling me about a flood, how it was warm enough that all the snow melted and deluged the entire world.
I must still be fighting the fever. It’s not plague, I know that much. If I had plague, I’d have blotches on my skin. I don’t have plague. I can’t.
I don’t have time. The tent is burning. I’m not wearing any of my coats, but I’m still warm outside.
There’s a narrow path before the next tent. I see flames on its top. Is there someone inside? The smoke is heavy. It’s not like the smoke from the ‘shovels in the Pits; this smoke seems worse somehow. I cough. I need to get away. At least I have boots on.
I job down the narrow path between tents. I’ve never been here before. No, that can’t be right. The woman must have dragged me here when she found me on the way to the pyres. How long have I been here? How long have I been fighting the fever and dreaming those dreams?
The heat. I never thought I’d be so warm I couldn’t stand it, but I am here. Should I take off my shirt?
No. I’ll get away from these flames.
Something feels wrong in my stomach. My eyes are burning.
Someone screams nearby. It sounds like a girl. I spin in that strange valley between flaming tents.
No. Whoever it is, if they’re here, it’s because they have plague. They’re going to die anyway. It’s not worth it to risk myself for someone like that. I don’t have time. I need to get out of the Plaguer Camp if it’s all burning.
But what if it’s someone like me? Someone who doesn’t have plague, but had to come here because they might have had it once?
The scream comes again: “Help!” And it sounds like it could be Kaynie.
Kaynie wouldn’t be here. They wouldn’t make her come out here, would they? Just because she’d touched me, been around me?
I don’t have plague, so I couldn’t have spread it to her. They wouldn’t make the owner of the coal mines come out here?
But someone wanted her dead. Putting her in the Plaguer Camp would be just as good. I protected her, though. I saved her from that redcap. And then I doomed her by giving her plague.
But I don’t have plague, so I didn’t give her plague. It’s just that easy. Really. Just that easy. She can’t be here.
Cedric would have saved her without giving her plague.
Another scream. And it’s just like Kaynie. Fine. Fine! I look for a flap in the nearest tent. I find it and reach out – the cloth is hot! As hot as a pyre’s flames! Doesn’t matter. Push through. You’ve dealt with pain before, Aydrik, and you’re going to live long enough to get hurt a lot more. Deal with it.
I jump through the flap to the smoky, smoky interior. I can’t breathe. How could someone scream like that girl if they can’t breathe?
There, near the ground. I can almost make out a figure. It must be the girl. Smaller than I would have guessed. I crouch down to pick her up.
The figure scooches away. “No!” a voice calls out. “I’m supposed to wait for mom!”
As I crouch, I take a breath of clearer air. Well, at least that explains how whoever-it-is could scream. And through watering eyes, I can see that it’s no girl. It’s a young boy.
He’s breathing really hard. He has a splotch of dark skin on his cheek. His hair is falling out.
He has the plague.
I jump back.
He has plague. I can’t touch him. If I touch him, I’ll get it, and I’ll die, and I can’t ever go back into the Pits to be with Tala or save Kaynie or anything.
“Where’s mom?” the kid asks. One of his eyes streams tears; the other stares off into the distance. No water leaks from that one.
My stomach doesn’t feel good. I need to get out into the clear air. Well, clearer air. Outside.
The boy is under a blanket. It shifts.
The boy is missing a leg.
He can’t escape unless someone carries him. If he’s going to survive the fire, I need to carry him out.
I can’t, though. And he’s going to die anyway. He has the plague. They all die. Every single one of them. And I need to get back into the Pits. There’s no way I can help him. And he won’t let me anyway. He said he was waiting for his mom.
Something pops up above us. Sparks fall down. Some fall on my arms. I beat at the sparks, trying to put them out. The sparks fall on the boy, too. He doesn’t move at all. He just asks again, “Where’s mom?”
I need to leave him here.
Leaving him here will kill him.
He won’t come with me anyway.
I could lie, tell him I’m going to take him to his mom.
But that would mean I’d have to touch him. And I need to get back to rescue Kaynie. Once I touch him, I’m stuck.
It’s not my fault the tent’s on fire. It’s not my fault that the kid has plague. I shouldn’t have to deal with any of it.
My stomach! I heave. I throw up all over the floor of the tent. Something about the heat makes it smell way worse than normal. I throw up again.
The boy screams.
Something snaps up above. I look up. The entire ceiling is aflame. The supports quiver. The entire thing is going to fall apart.
I grab the kid. He kicks and screams. I drop him. He scuttles under his blanket again, hobbling strangely because of the missing leg. I grab him by his one ankle and drag him out. He twists, punching my hands with tiny fists.
On his ankle, underneath my hands, is another black splotch.
Don’t think about it.
You’re not going to get plague. No one has to know about this.
I yank at the ankle, dragging the kid toward the door. My stomach tries to heave again, but I force it down. Mostly. The kid rolls and yanks at his leg. I get to the flap and shove through. The canvass burns even through my shirt. I pull at the kid, but he doesn’t come. He must be holding on to something inside.
A cord pops somewhere. The entire thing collapses inward, slowly, the fabric buoyed by the heat of the flames. I see the canvass roll down.
I grip the ankle one final time. I heave.
The boy flies out amid sparks and screams. He’s out. He’s safe.
He punches me in the face.
Well, you know, I haven’t been beaten up enough lately. Why not?
I don’t think the tears streaming down his face are only from the smoke. “Mom! You’re not mom! Where’s mom? I need mom!”
I’m thankful the kid is small; he’s not really hurting me at all. I stand up, with the kid still trying to hurt me. I turn so he doesn’t hit me in the crotch, but otherwise I should be fine. I gulp in as much as I dare. I hope I don’t throw up again. My stomach still isn’t happy.
The snow is still melting before it touches my skin. It’s so nice here. Nice and warm.
But the tents are starting to collapse all around me. And with the flames closer to the ground, it’s getting more dangerous. We need to move.
I wonder if the kid will follow. I start walking. He keeps up, still trying to hit me. Fine. At least he won’t be hurt if he follows me.
You touched a kid with plague. Right on his sores. You know you have it now, right? You must.
No. I’m not going to shut up. You did the right thing and now you’re going to have to suffer for it. You’re going to have to deal with plague the rest of your life. At least it’ll be short.
Sometimes I really, really hate having that voice that says what the right thing is supposed to be. I wonder if everyone has that.
I wonder if everyone hates it as much as I do.
Read the next post here.