“Yes,” he said. The Free Companies were bands of brigands, loosely organized into private armies, that scourged Europe during the Middle Ages, preying on the undefended populace.
“You think that could happen these days? Here, in the States?”
“I’ve never thought about it,” Monks said.
“Well, do think about it, man. There’s twenty million people out there who got nothing. Outlaws, or just one step away. And zillions of guns.”
Freeboot nodded for emphasis, apparently satisifed that he had made his point. Then, barefoot, he started across the clearing with a rangy feral stride.
Monks and the guards followed, this time to the large cabin with lit windows that they called the lodge. He guessed that it was close to a hundred years old. Its logs were almost three feet thick, the kind of old-growth Doug fir you hardly ever saw anymore. They had settled with age, and the chinking was gone in spots, but the structure and metal roof looked intact.
When the door opened, Monks had the sense of looking into a tableau from hundreds of years ago, the kind on display in museums. A fire crackled in the big stone hearth, lighting the room. The air was thick with the smell of generations of roasted meat. There was a long table of rough-hewn wood, strewn with liquor and beer bottles.
The two women in the room were also frozen, tableau-style, in their poses, but their clothing put them into modern times. Marguerite had changed into tight low-cut jeans and a skimpy blouse, the outfit that seemed to be a uniform for young women these days. Her long black hair and Mediterranean face gave her a look that could have graced a Renaissance portrait, if you ignored the exposed midriff and pierced navel. She looked forlorn, adding to the sense of a lady pining for a lover. Monks recalled her obvious upset at hearing that Freeboot was giving “training.”
He recognized the other woman as Shrinkwrap. She was in her late thirties, small and thin, with an aura of no-nonsense intelligence. Like everyone else, she was wearing blue jeans and had a red bandanna tied as a hippie-style headband, but her shoulder-length hair was professionally cut and well cared for. She didn’t seem happy, either, with a hostile gaze that was fixed on Monks.
There was no sign of Glenn.
Freeboot crossed the room to stand beside Marguerite, his hand sliding down, with automatic familiarity, to caress her rump. She lowered her eyes, with the deferential air of a consort in the presence of her lord. He was not much taller than Marguerite, under six feet, and with his taut body hidden by clothes, he looked less fearsome than he had when he was glowing in the sauna. But his eyes still commanded.
“We’ve got somebody who’s sick,” Freeboot said to Monks. “You willing to help?”
So: that was it.
“It depends,” Monks said warily.
“On a lot of things. I’d have to look them over and see if I can help, for starters.”
“What I’m asking you is, are you willing?”
Monks hesitated, then said, “I’ll give you my opinion on the best course to take.”
“Let’s quit the word-game bullshit, man. You took the Hippocratic oath, right?”
Monks’s mouth opened in astonishment that Freeboot both knew the term and what it entailed. And he was right. Monks had had a vague notion of using his skills as a bargaining chip. But the truth was, there was no way he could not treat someone in need, insane though the circumstances might be.
“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “Have you got any medical supplies?”
“Tell us what you want. We’ll get it.” Freeboot seemed confident of this, and Monks decided not to point out that obtaining things like prescription medicines might not be easy or even possible.
Freeboot walked to a doorway that opened off the cabin’s main room. There was no door, only a heavy wool blanket hanging in the opening.
“In here,” he said. He pulled the blanket aside and waited for Monks to go first.
Monks did, cautiously, fearing the sight of a wound that had gone untended for days.
This room was very dim, the only light coming from a single kerosene lamp turned down low. The rustic impression was enhanced by an old-fashioned enamel pitcher and basin on a dresser. There was a jumble of clothes on the floor, and two beds, with someone asleep in one of them. As his eyes adjusted, he could make out a bare arm and long fair hair splayed over the pillow. He stepped closer, assuming that this was the patient.
“Not her,” Freeboot said. “Him.”
He pointed at the other bed, and Monks realized suddenly that there was someone in that one, too, scrunched back into the corner, almost hidden in the shadows.
He felt his scalp bristle when it hit him that he was looking at a little boy, about four years old, staring back with hollow eyes in his small, pale face.
Monks felt the surge of adrenaline that he usually only got when something really bad came through the ER doors. He knew already that this child was very sick. His first, worst fear was meningitis.
“Hi,” Monks said, managing to smile. “What’s your name?”
The little boy did not answer. His hair seemed colorless, his eyes sunken and dull, and his cheeks were too thin-the terrifying look of old age in a face that was just forming.
“He can talk pretty good when he wants to,” Freeboot said from the doorway. “His name’s Mandrake. The root of mystical power.”
Monks grimaced. For adults to take on absurd names was one thing; to burden a child with one was another. He was vaguely aware that the mandrake root had occult significance. He wondered if Freeboot knew that Mandrake had also been a comic-strip magician of a few decades before.
“He’s your son?” Monks said.
Freeboot nodded, then stepped to the other bed and shook the shoulder of the person sleeping in it. The shake was not gentle.
“This is his mom,” Freeboot said.
The woman stirred, then slowly sat up. She was in her mid-twenties, sallow and blowsy. With her messy lank hair, she had the look of a flower child gone to seed.
“I brought a doctor, like you broads wanted,” Freeboot said to her with clear sarcasm, even contempt. “You can watch him do his doctor thing.”
So-it seemed that Monks owed his presence here to the women. “I need more light,” he said.
Marguerite turned up the kerosene lantern and brought it to the bedside. Monks leaned closer over the boy, moving slowly so as not to frighten him.
“How you doing, Mandrake?” Monks said, and sat beside him on the bed. “Not feeling too good, huh? I’m a doctor. I’m going to try to make you feel better.”
He smoothed the boy’s hair back, feeling his forehead. It was clammy and cool, and Monks relaxed a notch. If it were meningitis, Mandrake would have a burning fever, and be dead within a few hours.
There were still plenty of other serious possibilities.
Monks’s hand went to Mandrake’s mouth and eased it open. The lips were cracked, and the inside looked dry and cottony. His breath did not have the sweet milky smell of a normal child’s at that age. It was sharp and oddly fruity.
The first diagnostic tick registed in his brain-acetone. Ketoacidosis?
“Can you tell me what’s hurting you, Mandrake?” he said. “Your head? Tummy?”
Mandrake did not respond.
But his mother suddenly said, “Hi,” in a cracked, sleepy voice.
Monks waited, thinking she was going to tell him something. But she only watched him with vague eyes, then looked around the room as if trying to remember where she was. Such a heavy sleep-especially in a mother with a sick child-suggested sedation.
“He’s had tummy aches,” Marguerite said. “He’s been throwing up.”