This follows Nooj into the Crusaders. It will be multi-chapter. The first chapter is, of necessity, expository. It sets the scene for what is to come.
Leaving the others behind to attend to the myriad details of setting up a long-term camp, Nooj led Lieutenant Ferata toward the north and the path up to the Mi'ihen High Road. It was nearly a half-day's walk and the Captain had warned the remainder of his squad not to expect him back much before twilight. He was hungry for solitude and intended to take advantage of the opportunity.
The two men walked for some distance along the bottom of the gulch which ran parallel to the road on the surface high above them. They could see the occasional profile of a traveler passing on the thoroughfare unaware of any activity on the lower level. It was this proximity to commercial traffic which made the canyon such a desirable location for lurking bandits and others who preyed on the generally helpless businesspeople who serviced the web of Travel Agencies and shops. There were a few places along the way by which one could move from the upper to the lower levels, from the wilderness to the metaled highway. Nooj was directing Ferata toward one of these.
The means by which one returned to the Highway was not a conventional trail. It was a steep staircase of narrow ledges, affording foot holds at reasonably narrow distances. It imposed no impediment on an athletic young officer but would never appear as a viable pathway to any who did not understand its function. Nooj traced the winding pattern for Ferata and, satisfied the man had the route fixed in his eye, patted him on the back and made to turn away.
"I'll trust your Healer's judgment to buy what we need. Tell Rin to send the bill to Major Ciele; the Crusaders have established accounts at the Travel Agencies, so use your identification as cash. I'm going to scout around a while before I go back so don't expect to find me at camp when you get there." He took a few steps. "Oh, be sure to mark the place you come out on the Highway. Otherwise, you'll probably never find this path again." With a quick wave, he disappeared into the foliage at the base of the cliff.
Nooj hungered for this time alone. Those early days in the Crusaders when he had acted as a solitary scout had been some of the most satisfying of his life. While carefully surveying for various possible hiding places and poking gingerly into shallow caves, he had been able to set aside for a little time the memories which walked with him. He had been able to concentrate wholly on the signs of dangerous foes to the exclusion of the oppressive guilt which was his eternal companion. He had felt, oddly enough, his real age when he crept like a ghost down a ravine and marked the position of the enemy. On this beautiful day, he intended to recapture some of that remembered freedom.
His sensitive nose caught the faint smell of ashes smothered by water and he stood perfectly still like a cautious animal, looking fixedly in the direction from which the odor came. Consciously willing himself to blend into the landscape, he began to inch toward the tree line before him. After a few minutes, he saw a suggestion of yellow amongst the green of the foliage and paused to take his bearings. He reached for his sword, assuming he would shortly close with the figures he could now hear moving in the brush. With a muttered curse, he realized he had neglected to bring the heavy blade with him. He had not thought of doing any scouting when he left the camp and had armed himself only with his dagger. Well, it would have to do. He could handle a couple of straggling bandits with no trouble.
Pre-occupied with the search for his sword, Nooj had not noticed the single man creeping up on him as he passed under the cover of the grove and to the edge of the clearing ahead. He froze by a crooked, half-dead trunk and watched the two roughly clad men scraping over the ashes of their camp-fire. That was when he felt a sharp edge at his throat and heard a hoarse snarl at his ear.
Reflexively, Nooj grasped the wrist of the hand holding the knife and, with a powerful twist, turned it so that the point was aimed at the one gripping it. It took only a single smooth push to drive the point into that soft area just above the notch of the collar-bone. The rattling gasp and the threshing fall of the would-be assassin drew the immediate attention of the others in the glade. To his surprise and dismay, Nooj saw there were not two but three. Even three would not have been a problem had he his sword, but under the circumstances, he would be lucky to escape with his hide intact. He glanced around for a way to escape only to discover he was trapped with the three using rudimentary tactics and coming at him from three points at once.
In order to protect himself from at least one direction, he settled his shoulders firmly against the tree and prepared to yield his life at as high a cost as he could exact. As the first opponent came within arm's reach, Nooj slashed out and by impossibly good fortune caught the man in the soft part of his belly, just above the pubic bone. There was a sudden reek of feces as the bowels came rushing into the wide upward cut and the horrified victim dropped his weapon and grabbed for his entrails, his high pitched wailing stopping his companions in their tracks. The battle so far had lasted only seconds and, now with two down, Nooj was feeling more confident. He had narrowed the odds nicely already and saw no reason he should not return to camp with four kills to his credit.
The swift removal of their accomplices had made the remaining two bandits more cautious. They weaved, circling their foe, keeping their knives ever in motion and their eyes sharp for an opening. Exchanging surreptitious glances, they signaled a strategy which they had used in other battles. They moved directly opposite one another so that Nooj could not watch them both, then upon a nod ran simultaneously at their target.
Nooj, who had seen what they intended, responded as best he could - taking the charge of one whilst turning out of the path of the other. He slid his long dagger into the flesh just under the rib cage, slicing upward into the sanctuary of the heart. This was the classic blow, the misericordia, the one which dispatched a man without delay. And, as expected, the recipient of the stroke fell immediately and did not move again. At the same time as he wrenched his weapon free of the body, Nooj felt himself held tight with his left arm grown numb and useless. Turning his head, he found himself face to face with the final enemy, his nostrils filled with the foul breath of the man.
He did not wait to see why he could not move from his position against the tree but, with a swinging blow, pierced the bandit's temple with his blade. As he held his last foe's body upright with the hilt of the dagger, he watched the light flicker out in the man's eyes and knew he had won - improbably, but he had won. A small flame of disappointment flared in his mind. This might have been his trysting place with Death. As quickly as the thought occurred, it was extinguished. These were not the ones to kill Nooj the Undying. They were too small, too ignoble.
At last he had leisure to assess what damage he had taken. The cause of his immobility was quickly apparent. The last man had impaled his left arm with a short pike which had passed through the biceps and on across the chest, from the feel of it, being barely deflected by the ribs on that side, leaving him pinned like an insect in a display case. He rather thought one or more of the ribs involved had been cracked. It was only with some effort he managed to lever the pike from its purchase in the tree trunk which it had penetrated more deeply than might have been expected.
When he had freed himself and tried to move away from the tree, he was surprised to discover his legs were unwilling to support him. Helplessly, he slid down the rough bark until he was sitting at the base propped against the trunk trying to keep his grasp on consciousness. The arm still would not respond to his orders and he was dimly aware of the hot seepage of what had to be blood down his side.
Carefully laying his stained dagger across his thigh, he slowly reached his right hand to his left arm. The air was as sticky and resistant as isinglass and he thought he would never reach his objective. With what seemed infinite slowness, he touched the injured limb. Even the light pressure of his fingers nearly made him faint. Reluctantly, he turned his eyes to look at the wound into which his hand had sunk. The muscle was ripped and mangled and the bone exposed, shockingly white in the crimson wash of blood rushing from the torn vessels. He could feel his life draining as he watched. No! He would not die at the hand of an unknown common bandit. He was Nooj the Undying and was destined for better than this. Using his dagger, he clumsily slit his sleeve to form a tourniquet to bind up his arm. With only one hand the bandaging was difficult and he had to try several times to get it to stay in place. He tightened the improvised tie by winding the hilt of the dagger in its knot, tucking the end so that it was secured even when he could no longer hold it.
That done, he finally let himself slip into unconsciousness for a while. When he opened his eyes again he realized he must make some effort to save himself lest he be discovered by others of the bands of bandits he was sure infested this area. Even the assault of small animals could easily dispatch him in his current state. The shock of his injury was wearing off and he was pounded with rhythmic blows of pain as if a great maul was beating cadence on his arm and side. It took him a few minutes to realize the throbbing was in sequence with his heart beat and to stop the pain would be to stop his heart as well. It was only when he caught himself actually pondering the best way to do this that he became aware that not only his limbs but his thoughts were moving with sloth-like speed, sundered from reality. Suddenly it struck him the problem was not entirely due to the wound, severe as it was; he should be strong enough even with the loss of blood to overcome the lassitude he was feeling. No, the blade must have been envenomed and he had no antidote to counteract the poison. It was becoming obvious he must find help and quickly.
Nooj took a last look at the four corpses piled around him and, using the tree as a crutch, pulled himself to his feet and began to stumble shakily in the direction of the Highway. The bleeding had slowed and the tooth grinding agony kept him awake. After what seemed hours, he came to the first of the ledges which made up the precipitous staircase and collapsed on the moss, leaning back against the rocky wall of the canyon.
Bracing himself on his right elbow, he looked despairingly up at the edge of the road high above. The shelving steps which formed the only way to that sanctuary presented an impossible obstacle to a man weakened as he was. With a hopeless groan, he lowered his head again, letting it droop to the cool dampness of the second ledge. The soothing feel of the greenery and the haziness of his vision proved to him he had become feverish and would only continue to falter. A potion would have given him the strength to make it to the top but he knew he did not have even a single one. He had left the last of their scanty supply with his squad that morning, not expecting to need any medication on his day of recreation. That made yet another error in this disastrous day - any of which might easily prove fatal. The combination of them all? ... If he was to save himself he must make the effort immediately. He could delay no longer; rest would be of no help. If he refused to consent to ending his journey here and soon, he must force his failing body up the steep path.
If a universe of endless trial existed, it must be something like this. Drag a knee up to rest on a slippery stone, lever the other knee up beside the first, clutch the brambly growth on the edge to keep from losing one's balance and falling back, try not to hit the bandaged arm against anything - including one's own blood-caked side. Try to ignore the parching thirst and the black specks swirling about one's vision, stop, breathe, repeat. Forever.
"Captain!" Nooj heard the call and knew he was tumbling into delirium. He imagined a lithe figure leaping down the ledges calling to him. Resolved not to be distracted by fantasies, he renewed his grip on the rank weeds in preparation for another lurch forward. He did not bother to try to peer past the hair sweat-glued across his eyes, knowing there was no one to rescue him save himself.
When the hand of Lieutenant Ferata closed on his left shoulder, Nooj had barely the strength to scream as the searing blaze of the pain licked at his arm and almost swept him down the stony staircase. It was only when he felt a potion being forced past his clenched teeth he accepted the apparition before him as real. Ferata crouched down, inspecting the awkward bandage around the wounded limb and began muttering a spell under his breath.
"Stop! Don't waste your magic," Nooj gasped faintly, pushing the other man away.
"Shut up!" Ferata snarled absently, his attention centered on the slow closing of the gaping tear. He bent down for a more detailed look at the damage and for the first time noticed the discolored streaks radiating from the center of the area. Immediately uncorking a vial of antidote, he sent it chasing the potion down the injured man's throat. In his Healer mode, he was the authority and he was well aware of that fact. "Good thing I was delayed by those Al Bhed. How much blood have you lost?"
Nooj grimaced. He was not fond of being in the position of patient, having to answer questions instead of posing them. "Don't know. A lot, I think." He paused for a short while then, realizing he would have to confess, went on. "I'm weak and can't make it much further."
"Sure you can. I'll help. We'll get you back to Rin's and tuck you in for a good night's sleep and you'll be right as rain in the morning."
Why did all medical persons talk like that? Nooj hated the falsely encouraging tones and the inappropriate use of the plural which seemed to settle on a being's tongue once he trained as a Healer. However, he was in no position to reject the help so cheerfully offered.
Ferata, unaware of the effect he was having on his superior officer, continued. "There're some Al Bhed surgeons staying at the Travel Agency. I'll bet they have some new techniques to use in cases like this. Look now, your arm is just about closed up; can you bend it? Make a muscle, c'mon." His only response was a snarling hiss. "Well, that can wait 'til we get to the Agency."
Nooj squirmed uncomfortably on the mattress. His injuries had been cleaned and closed by the joint efforts of Ferata and two sleek Al Bhed Healers who also claimed to be surgeons. Even the cracked ribs were intact again. As a result of their combined skills, he was no longer in any physical pain and was confined to bed only because healing wounds was one thing, replacing lost blood was quite another. So it was not his body which kept him from his sleep but his mind. Acute chagrin was the reason he tossed and could not compose himself to rest.
He had walked blithely into dangerous territory armed only with a dagger. In his arrogant certainty he had taken for granted he could adequately defend not only himself but a second man for whose safety he was responsible. The carelessness of parading off into the wilderness with no potions or other means of treating accidents or injuries was equally improvident. What if he had stumbled over a fiend with the power to paralyze? He might be lying there yet, being consumed in small mouthfuls, helpless to resist. And to cap that by blundering into a nest of thieves without taking the precaution of counting the enemy and planning a strategy for retreat ... !
The nearly unbearable humiliation of having to be rescued by one of his own underlings was as agonizing as acid flowing under the eyelids. He threshed miserably about at the memory. The images poured in with such potency that he relived every bitter moment. How he had been forced to rely on Ferata's arm to help him crawl up the last of the shelving steps and onto the highway. How he had no choice but to lie waiting on the verge while the younger man returned to the Travel Agency for a conveyance and more help. The ride to the Agency as an invalid while being gleefully examined by professional Healers. Bah!
The worst of it all was the way he had cried out in pain when Ferata had touched him. At the recollection, his face burned in the darkness. Cried out, no - he flagellated himself - he had shrieked like a child, his stoicism deserting him. He had been surprised, he reassured himself; he had not expected the pressure on the injured arm. No matter, he could not bear it any longer and yet he could not stop the thread replaying behind his tightly closed eyes. One of his squad had heard him scream hysterically.
And now, Ferata had gone back to the Blood Avenger camp to tell the other eight of his shame. They were doubtless joking at the absurdity of his behavior even now. How could he ever expect to regain their unquestioning obedience after this display of incompetence? How could he expect to be followed when he had shown he was subject to pain and injury? That he was not indifferent to ... to what? Weakness had never been permitted to surface in his dealings with subordinates and now there was this ... It could not be hidden and he had no practice in coping with such indignities. He could no longer lie there dreading what was to come. He must face his failure both as a leader and a man on his feet like the Warrior he was. He hurled himself from his couch and fell sprawling on the floor as vertigo overcame him. He was still dizzy from blood loss and his balance remained uncertain. The sound of the crash served to summon the two Al Bhed who had been keeping watch just outside. With brusque efficiency, they hauled the larger man protesting and struggling back onto bed and impatiently cast Sleep upon him before they tucked him in like a monstrous child.
"Damn Spirans, they don't have any brains," muttered the older Healer under his breath. "No wonder they need us to prop them up."
"Will he be all right now?" asked the younger.
"He'll sleep; I don't know about how all right. He's tough but Crusaders are peculiar. Come on now, let's get some rest ourselves." He pulled the door closed behind them.
His senior looked up under his brows, the swirling green pupils merry. "I had it in mind to ask you to go back with our patient and embed yourself as a sort of resident Healer in his squad."
"And why do you think he'd accept me as that?"
"No choice. He'll still be weak for a day or two and we can insist on keeping him here, by force if necessary. If I read him correctly, he'll do what he has to in order to avoid that, so we make your attendance a condition of letting him go and ..." He spread his hands in a deal-closing gesture.
The younger Al Bhed grinned. "Well, I'm willing. So we'll see."