88. Press on — Keep Going — Don’t Stop

It takes three days for the caravan to reach Liamelia — three days that are part forced march, part nightmare. They stop as little as possible, for fear of spreading disease, and travel 12 hours each day to minimize the number of days on the road, and the amount of feed, water and animal fodder needed.

Afterwards, Inglorion will remember few individual incidents, and his notes are necessarily sketchy. There are the usual delays and frustrations: A trace that keeps breaking, uncertainty about the road, a maddening incident in which one of the freed captives calls the Gypsy drivers “stinking Jews.” The fever patients’ suffering is constant — eight people die on the road, and have to be buried at night, in hastily-dug graves. Under normal circumstances, all of them would be considered too sick to move. The ongoing risk of cold and exposure outweighs this, but Inglorion is painfully aware that some might have survived with proper shelter and food. The cold becomes steadily worse each day, reaching a climax on the third day, with a bitter, penetrating wind and driving sleet.

On the third day, his hands are numb on the reins, he’s so tired that he can barely keep upright in the saddle. He speaks only to give orders. The main order is press on, keep going, don’t stop. Repair anything that breaks with any materials at hand, but keep moving at any cost. His throat is clogged with exhaustion, fear and despair, so he gives his rations to anyone who needs them. He’s so tired that Virginia is frightened for him — there are deep hollows under his eyes, and he looks gaunt. He dismisses her concern out of hand, saying, “It doesn’t matter if I’m hungry or tired. It doesn’t matter at all.” He’s terrified they won’t make it back, that they’ll break down and be denied shelter, die of exposure. It’s a very real possibility. They’re short of food, water and fuel. By now, everyone in the caravan is exhausted, hungry and cold, and basic physical tasks — repairs, feeding and caring for the horses — are painfully slow.

His answer to every inquiry, every choice, is press on — keep going — don’t stop. On that last, nightmarish day, the cold and wind are unremitting, and progress is heartbreakingly slow. Two cart horses fall dead lame and stumble repeatedly. Their hocks and knees are badly cut up — they will almost certainly have to be destroyed when they reach Liamelia. Inglorion rides up and down the length of the caravan, calling out to each driver and rider, telling them again and again that they’re close, this is the last day, once they reach the post road, they’ll make good time.

He’s afraid to let them stop at midday for fear they won’t start up again. The general sense of entropy is sickening. They’re all sunk in a haze of misery, and everyone longs to give in and stop. The fever patients desperately want the constant jolting motion of the carts to end. The drivers nod off on their boxes and the outriders struggle not to doze off in the saddle. Virginia has run out of comforting words for her patients. She keeps saying mechanically, “Just a little further. Soon you’ll be able to rest and get warm. Just a little further.”

When they do stop, Inglorion forbids them to light fires and sets his watch for 30 minutes. He finds Sextus, pulls him apart from the others, and asks, “What are the symptoms of gaol fever?”

“At onset, sore throat, headache, aching joints. The skin is often sensitive to the touch, and may become very painful. Chills and fever soon thereafter. Light sensitivity. Much like influenza, though the course and prognosis are different.” He looks narrowly at Inglorion. “Should I examine you?”

“Yeah. Somewhere private.”

They withdraw behind the last wagon. It’s brutally cold, and even in the lee of the caravan, the wind is fierce. “You’ve got one or the other,” says Sextus. “I’d put my money on influenza, but it doesn’t much matter. You’ll have a raging case by nightfall, and either can kill you. You must lie down immediately in one of the quarantine wagons and allow your wife or myself to nurse you.”

Inglorion considers, finally says, “I don’t dare lie down. I think today is our last chance. If we stop tonight, many of us won’t get up again, animals or men. They’ll be dead or too exhausted and demoralized to move.”

Sextus nods slowly. “Very well. Is there someone who can ride next to you? Watch over you in case you’re suddenly taken ill?”

“I’ll keep Aramil with me. He’s still pretty lively.” They trudge back to their mounts. “Help me round up all the drivers and outriders,” Inglorion says. “Everyone who’s not in a wagon, and passengers who can move on their own.”

They huddle up briefly. Inglorion says, “We’re very close now. The weather’s getting bad, and we can’t have any unforced errors. You must remain within line of sight of the wagons in front of you and behind you. No unauthorized stops. If you’re going to fall behind because of broken equipment or a lamed horse, notify me immediately. I’ll get help for you, and call a halt if need be. Let me be very clear: From now until we reach the city gates, if you leave the group without permission — take a side trip, outstrip the wagon directly behind you, stop to barter with a tinker — you won’t be allowed back, and you’ll be denied food, water, shelter and the use of tools. So think hard before you stroll off to pick daisies.

“We’ll travel until we reach the city gates and safety. We should be there by nightfall if we stick together and keep pushing.”

A few glances are exchanged, but no one complains. They start up again, drivers prodding their horses again and again, Inglorion, Aramil and Father Nate riding up and down the line, pleading, cajoling, shouting where necessary.

Once they’re underway, Inglorion says to Aramil, “Nephew, keep near me. I can tell I’m tired. If I don’t watch it, I might take a tumble.”

Aramil looks at his uncle — really looks at him — and realizes that he’s swaying in the saddle, shivering, almost blue with cold. “Should I lead Paris?”

“No, no — nothing that serious. But keep an eye on me. If I’m taken ill, don’t call a halt, but bring Virginia or Sextus to me.”

Inglorion won’t remember much of those last hours — the endless, twilight stretch between noon and night, when the sleet began to fall in earnest. It becomes difficult to follow the cart-track. The lead drivers miss the turnoff for the post road, and they lose valuable minutes backtracking.

Once they’re on the post road, it’s usually two hours to the city walls. At their hobbling pace, it takes four. That stretch of road is deeply familiar to Inglorion and Aramil, though Aramil hasn’t seen it since he was banished years ago. There’s little opportunity for nostalgia — sleet and fog obscure the mountains, and visibility is so bad that they don’t see the city walls until they’re right up on them. The sentries are slow to respond, and the lone sentry who admits them to the guard house is slow to understand Inglorion’s curt and rushed account.

“I can’t just get the mayor,” he says. “Or Marcus Shelawn, either. Not just for any bloke who stumbles up to the gate.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” says Inglorion. “Marcus Shelawn is my brother, Xardic Ceralac is my brother-in-law, and I’m on official business. I’d go get them myself, but I’ve got influenza, and I don’t want to spread it all over the damn town. Rouse someone from the guardhouse who’s capable of carrying a message, and who’s not such a punk-ass bitch.”

A second guard pokes his head through the door, probably out of idle curiosity, and Inglorion says, “You! Do you know where the Shelawn and Wallace houses are?”

“Yes.”

He strides over, thrusts two calling cards into the man’s unresisting hand, says, “Then fucking give one card each to Xardic Ceralac and Marcus Shelawn. Tell them Inglorion is waiting at the city gate with a fucking shipment of sick and injured slaves, and tell them to fucking look lively and earn their fucking pay.”

The guard shrugs, and glances over to the first one, who nods. “OK.” He pockets the calling cards, prepares to amble off.

“Take a fucking hackney,” Inglorion calls after him. “I’ll pay if those cheap-ass motherfuckers don’t. And if they’re not at home, have the butler send a fucking footman to track them down. Don’t make me come after you. Nobody wants that.”

He leaves the guard house regretfully. It’s not heated, but it’s toasty compared to sitting on horseback outside the city walls in the driving sleet. He takes the reins back from Aramil — Paris’s expression of long-suffering misery would be comical in other circumstances — and mounts back up after a long, humiliating struggle. Now, in the wake of mingled anger and relief, he’s drained.

“Aramil, I think I’m going to be sick.”

“A wise man once told that if you’re sick in the saddle, you can just go ahead and puke,” says Aramil helpfully.

“What a clever fellow he must have been.” Inglorion’s actually seeing black spots before his eyes, and struggling to hold the reins. He keeps shaking his head to clear it. “Oh, fuck. I’d better get down before I fall down.” He dismounts, leans heavily against Paris’s shaggy black withers, then sinks to his hands and knees and starts to retch. He vomits extensively, right there at the head of the battered, half-lamed wagon train. The yield is impressive, given how little he’s eaten. His head spins, and his vision goes dark. He hears a commotion, and thinks he hears Sieia’s voice, which seems impossible. Soon thereafter, he feels her touch and smells her perfume, and knows it’s actually her.

“Sieia, honey, I have gaol fever or influenza, and many of the slaves are ill. We’ll need to be quarantined.”

“Shh. I know. Aramil explained it all.”

He keeps trying to talk, to give her instructions and reminders, to tell her to find Virginia — his bride! — so that she can nurse him. Sieia keeps shushing him, and seems to be ignoring him. He keeps trying to explain how urgent everything is, and to reach out to her. He feels firm hands pinning him down, and naturally he resists them vigorously. There’s a pain in his arm, then the chill of an injection. Soon thereafter, Inglorion is forced to rest.

For the first episode of Inglorion’s adventures, click here.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of Inglorion and Valentine’s adventures, click here.

2 thoughts on “88. Press on — Keep Going — Don’t Stop

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