My timeline and fasq’s seem to have got a bit out of synch here. I’m going to chalk it up to differing calendars used in Norway and Georgia.
May 5th, 1324
Gunnar looked at the walled city with weary anticipation. The cool trail had been getting hotter these past few weeks, and they were now in Georgian lands, where official help should be forthcoming to hunt Assassins. On the other hand, the closer they got to Baghdad, the more willing the Assassins might be to open the bottle and take their chances on the plague getting to the Worm Kings. He cursed the ill luck that had let them slip his grasp in Portsmouth. His ship had gotten into harbour a day after the Assassins left, and then bad winds had held him for a week. But now, perhaps, the long months of trailing the Assassins over Europe – up the Oder, then down the Danube to the Black Sea – might come to an end.
The guards at the city gate nodded respectfully to his Lion Rampant banner and fifty mounted men – Norwegian embassies weren’t so uncommon in Georgia. On being told his business, the guard captain smiled. “Ah yes! I think I know the men you seek. They came here last market day. One of them tried to steal a ham from a stall – then they killed two guards in the fight. Most of them got away, but there’s three in the jail waiting to be hung next market day, as an example. If you head over there I’m sure they’ll be happy to torture them for you, and maybe we can recover your property.”
“Wonderful!” Gunnar smiled happily; at least his exertions had been good for something, the Assassins must have been hungry and broke for their discipline to fail like that. The way they’d given him the slip across two rivers had built them up in his mind as deadly effective enemies, but it seemed they weren’t immune to human error after all.
The jail was tiny, meant for holding a few people until they could be hung with the maximum possible audience. It also stank, of feces and despair. Gunnar’s mood was all the better when the guard showed him to the cell; justice, it was clear, was being served. His elation grew even further when he saw that the prisoners included ‘Hassan’, the Assassin leader.
“Good evening, Hassan. I see you’ve made your last mistake.”
The Assassin shrugged. “All things are accomplished according to the will of the God. You’ve come too late, Yngling.”
Gunnar’s heart dropped into his stomach. He began to reach through the bars to take the Assassin by the throat, but thought better of it – he might have infected himself. “What do you mean?”
“The guards here” – incredibly, the Assassin began to snigger, then laugh uncontrollably. It took a minute for him to get himself under control; at last he wiped his eyes and continued: “The guards – they thought the bottle might be booze. So they opened it and” – he paused again, but got his laughter under control – “took a sip! One each!”
Gunnar stared at him as he went into another laughing fit. His mind was empty. Then the faint hope came to him that the Assassin might be lying, buying time for his comrades to escape – after all, Baghdad would be a better place for the initial release. He turned to the guard. “Is that true?” Absently, he noticed that his voice was quite calm, just like drills in the uptime. The wargames had been good for something, then – he’d seen Norway collapse under Chinese attack many times, on the monitors. He’d never seen the Ynglings do it to themselves, though. The guard nodded, grimacing. “Oh yes, the bottle? Nasty stuff. What was in it, anyway?”
Gunnar considered gutting the idiot, but it seemed a futile gesture, and anyway the germs would be well spread in his intestines by now. The last thing he wanted was to give them a chance to spread further. He didn’t answer, but turned on his heels and left. One final chance, and that a gamble.
May 5th, 1324
Downtime cities were always surprisingly quiet at night for one raised to electricity; few people could afford good candles, and even the best didn’t give much light. Perforce the downtimers went to bed early and rose with the sun. What was more, they built their houses in wood and straw, and the weather had been dry this past week. Even so it would be a desperate gamble – fire patrols were the strongest institution the downtimers had, for just such reasons. All Gunnar could do was to hope that a fire watch meant to deal with accidents wouldn’t be able to deal with 50 dedicated arsonists. He looked at the moon and decided it was time. Two strikes of flint against steel and his torch caught. He pushed it into a straw roof, waited until it caught, and moved down the street to repeat the operation. Towns could be completely devastated even by accidental fires; there was a chance, just a chance, that the plague might be burned out.
A slim chance, and a terrible thing to be the last, best hope for millions of people. But the only chance Gunnar had, nonetheless.