Chapter Three: Surreptitious Entry
Indeed it was getting increasingly shadowy in the woods, as they passed into the mirky depths of the conifer forest that dominated the landscape in those parts. And as they walked Eric began to tell a tale that soon had Martin mesmerized.
The boy told him of a group of holy men living far away from the remaining cities and kingdoms that lay scattered across the forests of the west. From their hidden fastness these heretical priests resisted the pervasive influence of the Circular Priesthood, whose vitriolic teachings blamed the scientists and their inventions for the events that led to the great upheavals that occurred during the great Cataclysm.
This secluded monastic sect had burrowed deep into the forests of the north to elude the Church’s prohibitions against scientific inquiry. According to Eric, this group of initiates knew they were stumbling about in the dark. Defying the injunctions of the Priesthood they labored on in their shadowy redoubt to rediscover how our prior world had functioned. And they also focused on trying to understand and defeat the plague that cycled through the survivors’ communities every year with such brutal consequences. The boy looked up at Martin, “you know how many people have died. How many more will have to die every year unless we can find a way to stop the blight.” Martin knew he was right. Every year a new bout of the deadly plague would revisit Harborton, and scores of families would be expelled from the city’s walls to fend for themselves in the wilderness – all because one of their members had come down with the telltale rash.
Eric paused, as if to recollect some bygone moment. “I’ve heard the piteous cries of the wretched families that have been turned out when they’ve been strickened. I’ve watched them plead until they’re hoarse before they finally crawl off into the woods, defeated and hopeless and never to be seen again. “It’s monstrous”, Eric said almost inaudibly. Martin glanced over to see a shadow cross the boy’s face. Momentarily, Martin sensed a chill in the air, and glancing over he saw horror flash across the boy’s face conveying an utter hopelessness that made him shudder and pull his coat tighter about him.
Suddenly conscious of his lapse, Eric glanced hurriedly over at Martin and then resumed with a steadier voice. Peering determinedly into the gathering gloom, Eric went on to explain how, despite all their efforts, this isolated band of renegade scientists had been unable to overcome key challenges in the development of a cure for the plague, and now they were urgently looking for others that might be able to help. These holy men needed to find others with knowledge and especially equipment that could help them advance their research. Martin had been sent out to see if anyone would be willing to help. Harborton, he had heard still had a functioning hospital with Medics still practicing the medical sciences. It was even rumored, he said looking directly at Martin that some were still using the ancient machines when they could get them working.
By now it was quite dark in the sopping forest as Eric, Martin and Big Dog trudged along the narrow deer track that led along a small stream parallel to the road. As they neared the perimeter, the trail climbed out of the ravine and emerged out of the Scotch Broom thickets that lined the old road. Ahead of them stood the Eastern Gate.
It was getting late and Martin knew the guards would soon be closing the gate. It always took a while to shut the massive gates and the guards would usually announce the imminent closure by calling out to any who might be approaching. Martin was often out until the last minute and he frequently got ridiculed for these last minute appearances by the stout guards that were by now anxious to return to their barracks for a late evening repast. He had expected this to be yet another such last minute entry as he just barely slipped between the massive wooden gates.
He and Eric were just threading their way up a muddy side trail to the gate, when an urgent exchange of voices broke the silence of the forest. Unmistakably he heard the rider’s voice just beyond the thick screen of Scotch Broom that grew in wild profusion along the border of the dirt road. The tone was almost angry as he stopped mid-stride to catch the words through the thick foliage. “Remember, he’s just a boy…big dog … make sure …” and a gust of wind swallowed the rest. But at the end Martin heard the same voice continue confidently, “…send word to Drew’s residence, you’ll be richly rewarded for your troubles, Sergeant!”
A cold shiver ran down Martin’s neck. He carefully turned to look behind him and Eric was crouched silently right behind him. Their eyes met and without a word they cautiously slipped back down into the ravine.