In the early morning of the fourth day in which we camped at the roadside during our gradual procession south, several of the draft animals were startled from where they had been improperly tethered, promptly running away. According to one of our guides, the upset had been caused by one of the ornery mustelids of the region stumbling into the animal area and attacking a workhorse. It was seen snarling and clinging to the animal's flank even as it galloped out of the area.
Fortunately however, no lasting damage was dealt to any of the panicked animals, they were all rounded up, and almost no more was seen of the badgering marten. The good fortune did not extend to Ciudo, however. Our linguist was one of the volunteers who went out in search of the animals--or more accurately, to be used as a blundering sheep dog meant to scare them back into the arms of their handlers--and while doing this, he apparently encountered the animal, which bit him. As he shook it off, he stumbled back and fell off of the sheer side of a short knoll and cut his shoulder up on the way down.
He wished to shrug the injury off when he returned to camp, I think because he was already considerably embarrassed by his behavior and treatment over the past few days of our expedition. I can sympathize with the feeling, and I should keep in mind not to coddle or patronize him. But Sarq insisted on making a full examination of the wounds and cleaning them up accordingly, having come to take his role very seriously.
It was routine, and the injury would not be harmful, I am happy to say, but Ciudo complained when Sarq insisted on washing the cuts out with one of the liquids given to him by Elrusyo. He remarked that it seemed entirely pointless except to make the cuts hurt more, and burn. Sarq explained that it was indeed unpleasant, but that it was necessary to the prevention of infection.
Ciudo and a few others began to give Sarq a look now like he was suddenly talking about esoteric ritual, but I vouched for him by stating that an increasingly popular theory nowadays was that inflammation, fevers, or disease can take hold when their motes enter a body through any opening, cuts included. I explained that this was the latest learning to be accepted by the ITU, after having disseminated from Serminwurth over the past several decades. My intention was to add an air of authority to the theory by dropping that name, but it only seemed to increase Ciudo's incredulity.
He remarked that it did sound like something from Serminwurth- macabre, hopeless, and wealthy in new ways that you can die or be killed.
And while I cannot entirely disagree with that sentiment, given the genuinely reprehensible actions of certain alumni of the city's less ethical colleges, I did tell Ciudo that the people of that city can be very passionate and hopeful at times.
Hope in Serminwurth, I explained to him, is a rat.
You can find rats everywhere in that labyrinthine city, particularly on the streets of the ground-level where the poor tend to dwell. But they live in all districts and at all heights of the dark grey city, sometimes without much molest so long as their numbers are within a prescribed "safe" range. Food is even tossed to them in and around areas dominated by statues of rats.
The city owes its independence to those scrabbling heroes, after all.
Once upon a time, in the early years of the Haraalian succession wars, Serminwurth--as the westernmost center of the empire--came under the hegemony of a particularly infamous grandson of the Ersuunian god-chieftain. He was a man named Seddah, and he was known for his ruthlessness on the battlefield, as well as general cruelty off of it. His army was comprised of personally loyal elements of the now thoroughly divided and decimated imperial army, as well as mercenaries and bandits, or former soldiers who had turned to brigandage before being welcomed into Seddah's somewhat morally lax chain of command. While the old guard liked to put on airs that Seddah was going to eventually expand and save the empire from itself, it seems more likely in hindsight that he was just staking his own claim while the world burned.
The army besieged Serminwurth after negotiations broke down between it and the governing body of the city. The siege was protracted, lasting between six and nine months depending on the source referencing it. It had been somewhat of a hopeless one from the start, because the army's encirclement and the city's lack of allies in that harsh time meant that supplies would not be coming. But it the effort had been made because it was possible--almost likely--that another roving group of successors would pass through in the interim and dislodge or disrupt Seddah enough for the city to repulse what was left. Such a thing had happened in Meroth two years earlier, when Rhotil the Last swept in from the north with an enormous cavalry army and drive his half-brother Olfeer southeast. Rhotil continued to pursue the other army south past the borders of the empire, eventually resulting in the Avalanche of Raan and all of its hilarious comeuppances, leaving Meroth relatively unscathed.
Fortune did not favor Serminwurth, however. Food and water dwindling, the governor eventually renegotiated with Seddah and opened the gates to the army to prevent the wholesale slaughter and sack of his people and city. To Seddah's credit, the slaughter and sack which did follow was restrained, and relatively in line with all of the other violence occurring in that time.
The horsemen marched in on top of the bound body of the governor as they entered the city in a classic expression of victory, slowly rendering him a pink stain across the cobblestones of the city's gate-street. Today you can still see a long line of rosy cobblestones adding a splash of color to the dour streets, though contrary to popular belief these were put in place specifically as a memorial to the man and others who died during the occupation.
The people of Serminwurth simply had to endure this at the time. Food grew scarcer, the wealth of the city was seized, and the compromised bodies of those who had survived the siege were now faced with an outbreak of diseases, chief of which was Nambarish Pox.
The disease is not in any way identifiable as Nambarish- the name merely comes from the coloration of the blotches, spots, and welts formed on the body of a person infected by the pox, which are supposedly similar to some of the small, rindy citrus fruits grown in east-central Nambar to the west.
The pox is transferable through a distressingly wide range of vectors, but the one most commonly remembered today is by contact with rats who carry it. The disease appears to be endemic to the area in and around Serminwurth, because the people of that city were quite used to it, and had adopted ways of combating the disease. A particularly creative servant of Najis is credited as having developed the local form of inoculation, in which the spittle of the ill was collected, boiled, diluted, and then poured into a cut in an otherwise healthy individual to force them to face and overcome a less severe form of the pox.
Here, Sarq interrupted to assure Ciudo that this was not what he had been washing his wounds with. The group laughed, uneasily.
To those with no access to what was considered at the time (though still somewhat today) an insane procedure, they simply endured to the point that their descendants developed something of a resistance to the disease. Outsiders, on the other hand, were highly vulnerable, and experienced the full gamut of symptoms which could often result in fever, coma, and death.
When the pox again flared up in the occupied city, its population did nothing to halt it.
And then, the people worked to deliberately propagate it.
Rats began to be caught and bred, ostensibly as food for the starving masses, but in secret to infect them with the pox, which was harmless to the rat and did not even manifest in the animal, and then to release them into the portions of the city most heavily populated by Seddah's soldiery. When the higher ranking members of the army demanded treatment of the local doctors, the surgeons and herbalists dressed their cures up in pomp and mystic circumstance, all while ensuring that the infected material introduced to the officers was not diluted or treated in the slightest. Many ended up being beheaded when their wards grew sick and died, but they reportedly walked up to the chopping blocks content with the damage they'd done to their oppressors.
Eventually the army grew sick and disorganized enough that a general revolt became possible, and the dour city-dwellers pushed them out of Serminwurth. There is no official record of Seddah's death, but there is no shortage of possibilities offered up by the city's culture today. One popular play focused on the end of the occupation involves a pit of rats, and an apocryphal torture device obliquely referred to as a "juicer".
The city was slow to recover, and to the reckoning of some--particularly the elite in Deneroth--it still has not reached the height it once occupied. But the people had reclaimed their self-determination, and almost as a side effect their academics developed the practical knowledge they'd gained from the weaponized disease to inform many future medical discoveries and innovations.
Hope is a rat in Serminwurth. Never truly dying no matter how hard you might try to root out all of its nests and warrens, always demanding attention in the back of your head with its constant scampering and gnawing. And, if you're not careful, its stinging bite can infect you with the drive to overcome all hardships.
Or a horrible inflammatory disease.
One of the two.