The kid keeps fighting me. I don’t know if he’s so far gone he can’t see the flames, or if his panic is so great he can’t function without his mom. I’ve seen it before, but in different circumstances. Sometimes we’d come to pick up a body, and there’d be a daughter or a husband or someone who couldn’t function without that person, and they’d just cling to the body. Tannen would always tell me to be patient and wait. I hated it, but sometimes we’d wait for hours while the mourner said goodbye. Tannen said it was one of our duties as pyremen to wait and allow everyone the time to mourn.
Personally, I just wanted to hit the person hard enough to wake them up. No one is ever really ready to say goodbye. Not unless they already know death the way a pyreman does. But then, that’s what they do in the Pits. Hide death, stow it away, because if you can’t see it you don’t have to deal with it.
Same reason we have the Plaguer Camp. If you don’t have to look at the plague, it doesn’t affect you.
Not that I ever had that problem.
But now I’m dragging a kid covered in black splotches through a burning tent city, trying to find the way out. The wind must have picked up; the flames are fluttering and the smoke isn’t as bad. It’s still warm enough that rain is snowing out of the sky instead of snow. It’s still so strange. I keep waiting for the ground to come open and swallow me. I mean, who ever heard of water falling from the sky?
There. There! Is that the end of the tents? I might get out! I might get out of the dying Plaguer Camp!
A square of night looms ahead. I keep dragging the kid; he needs to get out of here, even if he wants to wait for his mom.
I do wonder where all the other plaguers are, though. I mean, I didn’t see anyone else in the burning remains. No one else screamed except the kid.
What should I do with him anyway? I can’t take him into the Pits. I can get by; I don’t have the plague, after all. He does, and it’s obvious. And he’s not going to make it far. Not without a leg.
Then again, it’s not like I’m going to get far. My coats are all burned back in the tent they kept me in. Sure, I have boots that’ll protect my feet, but I’m going to die of cold as soon as I leave the camp.
All right. One problem at a time. First, get to the edge of camp. I can make a new plan then.
Scratch that. I need one now.
I struggle out of the corridor between burning tents and gasp at the cold, cold night air. The kid is wailing as I set him down. I’m panting hard; I hope I don’t throw up again.
It’s so dark out there. It must be the flames; I’m not used to all that light. And now I can’t see too well.
The voice echoes out of the darkness. “Plaguer, come here for judgment!”
I blink out into the night. What?
“That’s the one. Look at him!” a different voice answers. There’s general grumbling. The flames are still blinding me, but over their roar I can hear the voices.
“Aydrik of the Pyremen! Come forward!”
Oh, great. Whoever it is, they know my name.
The bow cowers at my feet. I can’t leave him.
I should. He has the plague.
Shut up. I should do the right thing.
Right? Sure. Maybe. If it wasn’t going to kill you worse.
They already saw me touching the kid. They know my name. If I survive this, I’m going to need a new name.
I step out into the night. Every step I can feel it getting colder. The ground – I could see the dirt! I didn’t notice that before! – the ground is hard under my feet without the softness of snow to cushion my feet.
After I take about ten paces, the voice calls out again, “Stop!”
The dazzle leaves my eyes and I can finally make out a ring of shapes. Some of them wear red caps; others look like simple citizens of the pits. Every single one of them holds a blazing torch. I can’t see their faces well, but what I can see looks like rage.
Wait. They’re holding torches.
Did they light the Plaguer Camp on fire?
One of the shadows speaks, “Aydrik of the Pyremen! I am Officiant Darren Oveigh. I am authorized to use deadly force to kill any plague who runs toward the Pits. But you! You brought the plague to the Pits! You tried to spread your disease! You killed Officer Bene Fasko, and infected Officer Perrin Fasko! Now we need to burn the infection out. We started here, but I’m glad we found you, Aydrik. I’m glad we can make sure you pay for what you’ve done.”
No! I didn’t kill anyone. One was trying to kill Kaynie, and the other – I didn’t – I mean, I did, but I didn’t mean to –
I can’t say any of the words. They won’t come out. I can’t tell them that I’m innocent.
Because I’m not.
Yes, I am! I didn’t do anything!
Everyone’s stooping down to pick up rocks, the boulders that are the refuse from digging the pits we live in.
The kid behind me is wailing for his mom.
I can’t move. What do I do? I deserve this.
No, I don’t. OK, I messed up, all right? I messed up. But death by stoning? I don’t deserve that! People that are stoned aren’t even burned! They’re left for the dogs to eat! Not even the pyremen take them!
They won’t take you anyway. Especially not after what you did to Tannen.
I didn’t do anything to him. He abandoned me!
Doesn’t make it right for you to abandon him, does it?
The first rock takes me in my shoulder. My bad shoulder. I go down, grabbing at the flare of pain. Darkness dances around the edge of my vision. The next rocks takes me in the side of the head. I fall to the ground, sprawled out. I curl my knees to my chest.
It’s not my fault. I don’t deserve this.
Yes I do.
I didn’t do what I should have done. I should have gone to the Plaguer Camp first. I shouldn’t have abandoned Tannen. I never should have taken Cedric’s job. I should have told the truth at the Sanctuary.
It’s my fault.
I’m getting what I deserve.
I don’t have the padding of my coats. The sharp rocks bite into my skin and tear at my muscles. I feel each one, one after another, no break between the impacts anymore.
It doesn’t matter. I deserve this.
I’m done fighting.
The men are shouting. I’m not hearing their words. All I can hear is my own heartbeat.
How much more can my body take? Just die. It doesn’t matter that they won’t burn you. At least you’ll be dead, and not even Tannen can respect you anymore.
I think of Patr, but I shoe the image away. I won’t cling to his stories after I’ve rejected them my whole life. Well, most of my life, anyway. Even if they were true, what God would accept someone who’s running to him just because he’s dying?
“Aydrik, remember the boy who ran away. His father ached to see him again.” Patr’s voice comes to my memory.
No. I don’t want to go to that father. I’ve done too much. Even if he accepts me, I can’t do that to him. I can’t do that to him. He deserves better than anything I can offer. I won’t dirty him with my stupidity. With everything I’ve done wrong. I can’t.
The rocks have tapered off. No. Please. Don’t leave me half-alive. Finish me. Kill me. Make it end.
“Aydrik, the father longed to be with his boy, even after the boy wasted half of everything the father owned. You can’t destroy half of what your Father owns.”
Yes I can. I can kill and maybe I did bring plague to the Pits. And half the people who are left will die. And it’ll be my fault.
A voice screams in sudden pain. A young voice.
The men’s voices are laughing now.
“Put him out of his misery!”
“He’s going to die anyway. We might as well help!”
“Can’t have him infecting the Pits either!”
That boy didn’t do anything. No. Stop it. Stop it! Stop hurting him! Hurt me instead! I deserve it!
I try raising my head. Pain lances through my body. Blackness takes me.
I will not allow them to hurt the boy. He’s innocent. I should die. Let him go!
I come back. The boy is still screaming. I lift my head.
Again. It’s cold. A pile of rocks rests on top of me. I can’t hear the laughter of the men. I can’t hear anyone screaming.
I move my arm. Oh. It hurts so much. Why am I alive? I should be dead. I need to be dead. Look at all the things I’ve done. I shouldn’t be here.
Why isn’t the boy crying for his mom?
The pain takes me and I pass out again.
The cold grabs at me. Why won’t it kill me? The rocks on top of me. I shift, and one tumbles down the pile. Another. I struggle, and I free an arm. I sleep in darkness. This time I can lift my head without passing out. I look.
No no no no no.
There’s another pile of rocks by the smoldering edge of the camp. A little pile.
I try to stand up. I fall into darkness before I even get one foot beneath me. When I come back, I can almost crawl, I can drag myself, I can flop over to the pile. All I feel is pain, but it’s vague, like it’s happening to someone else. That’s probably a bad sign.
It doesn’t matter.
If I lived, if the pile didn’t kill me, if the stoning didn’t kill me, maybe the boy is fine. Maybe he’s hurt but he’s ok.
He has to be ok.
He has to be.
I pull the top boulder off, dark and earthy in my hand. Another. Another.
I see his hand, crushed between two rocks.
His hand is cold. Maybe he’s still alive. I’m cold. I’m so cold. The remains of the camp still shimmers with heat, though. I can take him there. Warm him up. It’s not smoking anymore, so we should be able to breathe. We’ll wait there for his mom. It’ll be ok. He’s got to be fine.
More rocks. I black out again. I wake up with my head against one of those stones. When I sit up, I leave my blood behind on the rock.
How much time? How much time?
His hand is still so cold.
Doesn’t matter. He’s fine.
His face. That black mark on his cheek. The hair that grows in little tufts on his head.
His eyes. Neither one of them see now.
And he’s not crying out for his mom.
He’s not crying out for his mom.
I don’t cry. I refuse to cry. I can’t cry.
But I can carry him. Not far. I owe it to this child. It’s my fault. They killed him because of me. I should have died.
I pull him loose from the rock pile. I’ve seen the dead before. I’ve carried the dead before. But this one seems so much heavier than any other body I’ve ever prepared.
I limp. I don’t even know how I’m walking, but I carry him to the edge of the camp. I place the body on the coals, on the still-red coals of the camp.
I will watch you. I don’t even know your name, but I will watch you. No one will scatter your bones, little one. I don’t know your mother. I don’t know if she would honor you, but I will. I will watch.
And as the flames lick at his clothing, as what remains of his hair turns to ash…
Read the next post here.