“Well, if the plague hasn’t killed them already, they’ll die of fright for sure,” Halvard scoffed as he was passed a large mask that resembled the masks the embalmers had worn at the king’s funeral. The mask was shaped like a death moth.
“These are enough to give me nightmares.”
“Just put it on Halvard!” The áðr snapped.
Halvard pulled the mask over his head and snorted at the strong smell inside it.
“They stink!” the soldier next to him moaned.
“Sage oil,” The áðr explained. “Keeps the plague away.”
No it doesn’t, Halvard thought.
At the end of the row of soldiers one of them stared down at the mask the áðr had just passed him and muttered something under his breath.
“What? Speak up!” The áðr shouted.
“I can’t do this, sir,” the soldier said loud enough for them all to hear. “I can’t!”
“You’re just providing food soldier, you won’t be going near any of them.”
“I can’t! I can’t!” The soldier began to wail.
A few of the other soldiers in the line made apprehensive grimaces. Then one by one several they left their masks on the tables and walked away. The áðr glared down the line of soldiers who had remained. There was nothing he could do. The food supplies squad was comprised entirely of volunteers. Out of their whole garrison only twelve soldiers had volunteered, and now they were down to only eight.
“Any more of you bastards going to leave?” the áðr shouted. “No! Good! Then put on the damn masks and pick up a basket!”
They followed him through the garrison. Each soldier carried baskets hoisted up onto both shoulders and tried to avoid the eyes of the other soldiers as they walked down the hallways. Halvard wondered if the funeral bearers had felt the same way when they had carried the body of King Hábrók to his tomb. They think we’re going to die.
Nobody stood in their way as they walked across the city to the nearest cordon. The streets were all but deserted. A large wall, made out of anything the soldiers had been able to their hands on, blocked the cordoned street. The doorway through it was made of a wardrobe with its back kicked out. Outside the cordon, two guards sat huddled as close to a brazier as they could without being burnt. The heavy smell of sage oil filled the air. Coupled with the already strong scent inside the mask he wore, it was all Halvard could do not to choke.
The áðr nodded at the guards who ran up to the crude gate and pulled up the large bolt beam to open the door. The soldiers stared at the áðr as he stood back to let them through.
“Aren’t you coming through?”
“You volunteered, not me,” the áðr scoffed.
Behind him one of the soldiers swore loudly and threw his basket down onto the ground as he tried to walk away. His mask muffled a volley of swearwords. While the rest of the soldiers tried to hold the deserter back, Halvard scooped down to pick up the food which had been thrown on the floor and walked towards the door.
“What are you doing! The áðr won’t even go in! You’re going to die!” the soldiers shouted at him as he stepped through into the cordon. Halvard did not reply. Instead he waited until the door had been closed behind him before he walked down the street and looked at the ruined houses around him.
It amazed him how houses carved from stone could be destroyed so ruthlessly. Entire chunks of stone had been smashed out of the doorways and facades. Nobody was in the streets. A few figures huddled under blankets in the doorwarys, but none of them dared to approach him. The place stank of death and blood-tinged vomit.
Halvard walked from doorway to doorway and laid a loaf of bread down at the highest step. Nobody approached him. Even the dwarfs huddled in the doorways recoiled when he walked up the steps to pass the bread to them. Halvard looked at them. Some of them were unblemished, but most had plague marks. More than a few had long since died. The smell already saturated the air, and the flies were not far behind. Halvard shouted angrily and kicked at some of the rats which fled from one of the bodies as he approached the doorway.
We need to clear the bodies, or they’ll get rat sickness too. That’s the last thing these poor bastards need.
As he walked back down the street, his basket empty, he heard a voice call out behind him, and a woman ran down from one of the nearby houses.
“Do you have any left?” She asked, a damp scarf held across her mouth, her face covered in bruises. A particularly nasty bruise down the side of her face which had made one of her eyes swell up with it.
Halvard looked down into his empty basket, then walked towards one of the houses where he had seen a few dead bodies slumped outside. A few rats had already started to eat the bread he had left there. He brushed the rats away and took the bread to the woman.
“A few of the rats got at it, but I’ll be back tomorrow with more.”
The woman smiled at him and took the bread from him. “Thank you,” she murmured, and watched as he walked back to the gate.
He knocked on the closed doors and shouted to the guards on the other side. Eventually he heard the beam lock lifted up and the door was pulled open. The rest of the squad stepped back from him as he walked through, and the door was closed behind him.
“There!” Halvard held up his empty basket. “We need to start clearing the bodies, or they’re going to have more than the plague to worry about.”
“Are you mad?!” one of the soldiers gasped incredulously. “You’ll definitely catch it if you go around moving bodies.”
“Coward!” Halvard snapped. “If you won’t move them then I will!”
He picked up another one of the baskets which the soldiers had left on the floor and marched down the tunnels until he reached the next cordon. One by one the rest of the soldiers and eventually the áðr trailed away behind him until finally he was the only dwarf left.
Each cordon was the same: deserted streets, bodies in the doorways, and the smell of death everywhere. The sage being burned outside the cordons was not strong enough to hide the smell completely. When he walked out of the third cordon he was suddenly greeted by some of dwarfs he recognised from Jarl’s old unit. All of them wore masks over their faces.
“Halvard,” one of them nodded and walked forward to take the empty basket from his hands. “Where next?”
“What do you mean?” Halvard asked, before he realised they were all carrying food baskets.
“We’ve volunteered to be in your unit. The áðr said nobody else would volunteer.”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Halvard replied and walked away from them. “Go back to the garrison. They’ll need you for the palace guard.”
“We’d rather be death walkers.” One of them joked and Halvard furiously turned on him.
“I’m not joking! Go back! I can’t catch the plague. I’ll survive, now go back.”
Still, the rest of the soldiers walked behind him until he was forced to face them again. This time he did not shout. His voice was kinder but just as serious.
“You shouldn’t be here. Jarl won’t thank you if he comes back and half of you are dead from the plague.”
“Jarl would have done what you’re doing, taking food into the cordons.”
“You know he would,” one of the other soldiers chimed in.
“Besides, you’re not afraid.”
“I can’t catch the plague,” Halvard explained. “Trust me, if I could I would have caught it the last time.” He took a deep breath and dragged his hand over his face, exhausted from the last few sleepless nights. “Alright, how many of you were in the same house as a plague victim last time?”
A few of the soldiers raised their hands.
“And how many of you were so close you should have caught it?”
The raised hands lowered until only four remained.
“Alright. You four will go into the cordons with me, the rest of you will carry the food and water. Also, we might have to start carrying bodies out soon too. So if you don’t think you’ll be able to do it, leave now.”
None of the soldiers moved, their faces determined.
“Alright then,” Halvard laughed. “Let’s go tempt death.”