June 7th - Negev
Rollo sprawled in the armchair, mud clinging to his discarded boots as his feet soaked in a bowl of hot fragrant water. He'd downed a goblet of brandy in one gulp and yet still his eyes were glazed with shock, and barely an intelligible word had passed his lips since Iraen had ushered him into the study.
"He rode in like the fires of hell were on his tail, raving that the horror yet lived," Iraen was pouring him a fresh goblet, her half-belted nightgown flapping too and for as she moved.
"Have you sent for Helion?" Moira drew her own gown tight about her waist and reknotted her girdle.
"Neris is rousing him now. In the meantime she prescribed a soothing tincture for the foot-bath and suggested brandy to calm his mood."
Moira studied her chief scout, a man who'd served her for more than a dozen years and in that time experienced the full horrors of war, and she wondered what fell deed could so unhinge him. His breathing came in shallow ragged gasps and beads of sweat glistened on his sallow face, catching the firelight and turning it somehow sinister.
Iraen careful eased the empty goblet from his hand and replaced it, her expression a blend of tenderness and concern. How had Moira missed that? Had she been so long mired in the quest for justice that she'd forgotten the signs of love? It was a sobering thought, and one she swiftly quashed.
"Rollo?" she lowered herself into the second armchair, facing him from the other side of the hearth. There was a vague flicker of recognition in his eyes, a shudder of the hand sloshing brandy in his lap, and a second hurried gulp as he drained the cup.
"What happened my friend?" her tone was warm but quiet.
"The battle..." his words trailed off and his body jerked as he sank deeper into the plush upholstery. Iraen stood behind his chair, the colour drained from her face as she sought to master her own emotions.
"Relax old friend, there have been no battles here in many months," she reached over and took his empty hand, gripping it firmly in her own. He seemed to relax a little and the madness dimmed in his haunted eyes.
"An Najaf... a battle in An Najaf... death... Him!"
The door to the study burst open and Helion strode in, followed by his assistant Neris who was struggling under the weight of a large leather bag and an armful of battered tomes.
"Place those on the table girl, I need to examine the patient," he hunkered down next to Rollo, a thoughtful expression on his face as he studied the glazed eyes of his patient. Several minutes passed and Moira could feel her heart in her throat.
"As I thought, the black humour," he stood up and started leafing through the now-open tomes on Moira's desk. There were half-muttered scraps of Rancaguan, the classical language not its debased modern form, interspersed with Elven charms and another language alien to these shores, barely suited to human tongue.
"There's sarflax and ambril in the bag," he turned to Neris, "grab a fistful of each and cast them into the fire. Make sure they touch the flames as one."
The younger healer did as she was bid, rummaging in the leather bag and withdrawing one hand full of herbs and another of an opalescent stone. She approached the hearth cautiously, muttering something under her breath, and threw her precious cargo into the hottest part of the fire. The opalescent stones exploded, sending small seeds of flame darting through the burning sarflax leaves. The room began to fill with an astringent scent.
Helion knelt before the scout and held a small mirrored disk before his face, tilting it hither and thither so that the firelight reflected in glittering patterns. Such mesmerism was a technique known to but a few healers, those who like Helion studied the injuries of the mind, and it was far from guaranteed to work unless the subject possessed the will to recover.
"Look at the disk Rollo. See how it spins? Tell me what you see," his voice was soothing, but beneath the calm surface there was steel as his will sought to draw the scout back from the inner ferment which held his mind in thrall. Again and again he repeated the command, all the time the cleansing vapours intensifying, until on the moment...
"I shouldn't have followed them. My orders were to watch the ruins, and only the ruins. Not to get involved," his eyes were brighter, the horror somewhat subsided, "But then I heard rumours of undead and I thought to report their movements. There was a battle. At the Congress of Democracy. Lord Armstrong lead a handful of knights into the building, and there was a priest with them. I crept as close as I could without being spotted, and the carnage was terrible. I... it was worse then Oberndorf..."
Moira well remembered the killing fields of Oberndorf. Three days of bloody battle against the combined might of the northern realms, and the terrible harvest the Elven knights had made of her men.
"Did you see who they fought?" she already knew the answer, but she needed confirmation.
The beads of sweat on Rollo's forehead multiplied and his throat dried.
"It was no man, nor even the shadow of a man. A fleshless taint borne on the wind, and when it swept over me I knew it. I tasted it. It was death. It was Jon Paul Ogren, and he had become death."
The madness flickered momentarily in his eyes and thereafter he fell into a stupor.
"Will he recover?" Moira turned to Helion.
"Most men would have died long since. But the poison is drawn, he will recover," the healer drew a glass vial from his robe and smeared the ointment within on the scout's lips.
"Then move him to my apartments and make sure he's well-tended."
"What will you do now m'lady," Iraen rushed to follow Moira as she hurried into the main hall, casting aside her nightgown and calling for her squire Caradoc.
"I shall meet with Armstrong in Fontan City and confirm the truth of the matter. If Jon Paul's evil is yet abroad in the land then perhaps it's time we worked together to deal with it once and for all."