The Halfling Contagion – Excerpt

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A heavy line, sodden with rain and salty sea spray, slapped against the weathered stones of the southernmost quay of Deeprun Port. A dockhand grunted with effort as he secured the line to a cleat. Moving with practiced ease down the rain-slicked pier, the hand fastened three more lines in quick succession and signaled to a crew member to lower the plank. It was not the rain which made the longshoreman work with such speed, but the promise of the cargo.

Whenever she made the trip to Felmire, the captain of the merchant vessel Ploughshare always showed her appreciation for the dockworkers of Deeprun Port with a gift of consumables. What would it be this time: aged brandy, cured meat, spiced wine? That had been the ticket last trip, and the single glass the dockhand managed to obtain had gone down smooth and lit a pleasant fire in his belly that lasted all night long. The captain sure knew her business; after all, her token gifts always made the longshoremen pick up their pace.

With the ship secured to the quay, the crew lowered the gangplank, and the dockhand joined his colleagues at the bottom to await delivery. But something was wrong. The captain was always the first to disembark, always the first to welcome herself to Felmire in that gregarious way of hers. The dockhand admitted to himself that he had a soft spot in his heart for the captain, a chaste and unrequited longing for someone far above his station. So when the first mate came down the gangplank and said the captain had taken ill, the dockhand boarded the ship without so much as a “by your leave” and strode directly to her cabin.

“Captain,” he called. It was then that he realized he never knew her name. She was just ‘The Captain’ in his mind. “I’m one of the dockhands here at Deeprun Port. We’re all concerned for you and…” His breath caught in his throat. He had never been a man of many words and it seemed he had used his allotment for the day. He pushed into tomorrow’s store. “And we hope you feel yourself again soon.” He put his forehead against the glass of the door, but he could not see past its murky translucence.

The first mate caught up to the dockhand and took him by the shoulder. “She ain’t been awake much the last few days. Fever, you see. Sealed herself in that cabin. Leave her to rest, mate, and let’s be about our work.” He guided the dockhand back to the gangplank, where a single cask crafted from dark, exotic wood waited. “Captain wouldn’t let us break into this at all. It’s a rare vintage; only a dozen or so casks were made. She sampled it, of course, then said it was for you lot here in Felmire.”

“The boys’ll be happy to have it.” The dockhand hefted the cask onto his shoulder and made his way down the plank. “Captain is sick and she still remembers us. Get that to the Shed and hop to it now. Let’s get this ship unloaded with all speed.”

He passed the cask off to a pair of eager hands who carried it the length of the quay and deposited it outside the longshoremen’s private pub. The notion of tapping whatever it contained would, indeed, make their work more efficient. Yes, the captain of the Ploughshare knew her business. But she did not know what had made her sick. She did not know the cask of mead was contaminated. She did not know the honey had been fouled by the eggs of a certain nameless insect. She did not know that such eggs, when fermented, released a toxin that set the blood boiling and turned the skin to ash. She did not know that once unleashed, the plague would persist, grow, multiply. The captain knew none of this.

She died that night.

The first of many.

Chapter One

Until a month ago, when a person died in the sovereign state of Felmire, the body was embalmed, laid out in the family home, and mourned for many days before the Solemn Sending, cremation, and release to the sky. Not so now. In the first few weeks of the epidemic, the morgues had been overrun with bodies and the morticians were among the earliest of victims. The sick were feared and cast out, and still the death toll rose. There was now no ritual upon death in Felmire. The dead were rounded up and burned as one, such were their numbers. The plague cared nothing for rank: noble and pauper met the flames alongside one another.

Unless you were a member of the royal family.

Ryn stood in the doorway, listening to her father rail at his council. “I will honor my wife and son in the only way I know how, with the appropriate rituals that every Feldonsire has had since time immemorial.” His voice dropped from a shout to a hoarse whisper, and Ryn had to slip into the room to hear his next words. “No illness will keep me from this last duty.”

His voice broke and Ryn watched the tears come. Never in her nineteen – soon to be twenty – years of life had she seen her father cry. The tears darkened his already dark brown skin, flowing over his prominent cheekbones, gathering in the corners of his mouth, so often open in a broad grin. But not today. Ryn rushed to his side and buried her face against his chest. She thought her own tears had run out, thought no more moisture existed in her body to escape through her eyes. But that’s not how grief works. There are always more tears, and her father’s rare show of emotion triggered them again.

Ryn felt her father’s strong hands pat her back. Of her parents, he was not the comforter, and Ryn’s tears flowed all the more fiercely knowing she would never again feel her mother’s embrace. But in the midst of her tears, a small smile sprang unbidden to her lips; her father was trying, despite his own grief, to offer her comfort. The motions were both awkward and genuine, and Ryn knew he loved her, though he rarely spoke the words.

When the deluge subsided, Ryn pulled away from her father’s chest. Her tears left wet patches in the shape of her face against his uniform of cream and burgundy. She glanced around the room: they were alone. Her father must have sent the council away while Ryn expended her current wave of tears. “Rynliana,” her father began, prompting the reflexive scowl that Ryn wore whenever anyone used her full name. “Ryn,” he adjusted. “The world is broken. I do not know how to live without your mother. And my son, my only…”

He squeezed his eyes shut and let out a shaking breath.

“You can cry again if you need to, Father,” said Ryn. “I’m here. And I found someone, a halfling, who was willing to prepare their…” But she couldn’t bring herself to say the word “bodies.”

So many people had died in Felmire over the last month, but until last night such tragedy had not visited the royal family directly. They say the plague strikes at dawn and kills at dusk, and that was near enough the truth. Ryn’s brother Tari – officially Tarion the Fourth of that Name, but his older sisters never called him that – took ill just shy of a week ago, and his youthful vigor kept him alive longer than most. But their mother Caris always had a delicate constitution. Despite the danger, she cared for Tari from the moment the flaky white rash had shown on his neck, and the same symptom had stricken her three days later. They died in each other’s arms.

“Yesterday feels like a year ago.” Ryn’s father, Tarion Feldonsire, the Third of that Name, fell back against the wall and curled his fingers around the tassels of an ornate tapestry. Ryn knew her father would reach for some practical problem to solve, his normal response to anything that unsettled him and now his attempt to keep the grief at bay. “How ever did the plague reach us here in the castle? We have been sequestered since the outbreak.”

Ryn wiped her eyes on her sleeve to hide her face from her father’s probing gaze. “Some say the illness is in the water, Father. Some say in the air. We can’t hide from the air.”

“And what do you say, Daughter?” Tarion had wrapped the corner of the tapestry around half his body, as if trying to shield himself from the pain that had already overcome his defenses.

Ryn looked up at her father’s tear-streaked face. She had to tell him the truth, no matter the consequences. She could not live with herself otherwise. She put a hand to her neck and ran her fingers behind her generous bounty of dark ringlets. For a week she had attired herself in high-collared dresses and worn her hair long over both shoulders. When the rash disappeared, she could not believe her good fortune. Ryn had told no one.

Until now.

“Father, I…” Another torrent of tears was building behind her eyes. “It’s all my fault.”

The dam broke, and Ryn gave herself over to another wave of grief, this time laced with the guilt she had not yet allowed herself to feel. Ryn dropped heavily to a chair and doubled over, both hands clawing at the back of her neck, her arms covering her face. Through wet eyes and her waterfall hair, she watched her father’s feet shuffle toward her. He sank to one knee, no small feat for such a large man, and took her head in his hands. He stroked her hair, and the awkwardness of his earlier attempt was gone. Here was the papa who rocked Ryn to sleep after childhood nightmares when her mother had been busy attending baby Tari. The older his daughters grew, the more distant their father had become. He called it teaching them “self-sufficiency,” but Ryn had decided when she came of age that he was preparing himself for losing them to marriages of diplomacy. Such a future had already come to pass for the eldest, Aurelle, who was safely married off in their mother’s homeland. If Tarion never grew close to Aurelle and Ryn, he would be able to let them go.

The same was not true of Tarion the Fourth. He was the apple of his father’s eye. Father brought Tari with him everywhere. There was nothing he would not do for his son. Ryn never let herself feel jealous; after all, it was only natural that he would want to impart to his heir everything he knew. Tari would be the next monarch based on Felmire’s archaic rules that allowed only male succession, one of four of the Seven Sovereigns still holding on to such hierarchy.

Ryn heaved a great sigh and her tears shuddered to a halt. Tari would have been the next monarch. But he was dead at fourteen.

Because of her.

“Papa, I…I got sick during the first week of the outbreak.” Now that she had started, the words tumbled out of Ryn all at once. “You know how much I like to go down to Deeprun Port and watch the ships. A lot of people were sick there, but that was before we knew it was an epidemic. I came home and everything was fine, but then I woke up the next morning, and I had the rash on my neck. It was white and flaky, just like the people dying of fever at the port. I got so scared, so I covered it up. I thought if I didn’t tell anyone, perhaps it would just go away.”

Still doubled over, she spoke all these words to her knees, but now her father put his hand under her chin and lifted her head to meet his eye. “What are you saying, Rynliana?”

“The rash vanished a few days later. I felt a little ill for a day or two, but nothing more serious than an ache of the head and some chills. Then it was gone.”

“You had the plague, and you didn’t tell anyone?” Tarion’s voice was low, but it was not calm. Ryn could feel the pain pouring from her father start to solidify into rage.

“I was so scared and then when it went away, I felt such relief. I wasn’t sick anymore. I didn’t want to burden anyone…I never thought I might still be able to pass…And now Mama and Tari.”

Tarion dropped his hand from her face and staggered to his feet. He paced back and held his hands out at his sides, balled into fists. “Your carelessness has endangered our whole family. I’ve always known you to be a free spirit, Rynliana, but you’ve never been thoughtless. How you could keep this from your…from me is beyond the pale.”

His voice shook with anger, but he controlled it. The problem solver had resurfaced. “You will go now to Dr. Graves, and you will tell him everything you just told me. If you can overcome this illness, perhaps others can.”

Ryn stood up and moved to him for a last embrace, but her father put up his hands and walked away. “I’ve already touched you too much.”

Click here to purchase The Halfling Contagion
on Amazon in paperback or kindle edition.