Many hundreds of ribbons fluttered in the summer air. Ribbons, tied to the spikes of a hundred soldiers’ helms. Armored men and women grumbled, queued under the swelter. Rough hands fanned sweated necks, tugged clinging metal collars.
“Butter me up and call me a beef, Suse. This is an oven,” said a freckly lass to her shieldmate.
“Don’t have to tell me, Lyd,” said Suse, pulling her breastplate on its straps to permit some air. “Least we’re not marching.”
Ahead, the line shifted. The double row of soldiers moved up a notch, closer to a table piled with small bottles. The shield sisters stepped up. Lyd sniffed, wrinkled her nose.
“Yeah, but we’ve gotta deal with that,” she said, gesturing to the southwest. A rank breeze floated from there, heavy with a scent of rot and curdled gore.
Lyd grimaced, continued. “Disgusting. Bloody dogs won’t even bury their dead.”
“Can’t blame ‘em,” said Suse. “Crawling with plague. The Eleventy Third Brigade caught their medical convoy.”
“Eh, true enough. Don’t make me pity them.”
The line shifted, showed the table laden in little bottles. A bored quartermaster in a kerchief stood there, scribbled on a clipboard. The women stepped forward.
“Afternoon, Lance Corporals,” said Fischer, barely looking up. He ticked two names on his list, handed each soldier a thumb-sized ampoule.
“Thanks,” said Lyd. They turned away, trekked into the bustling camp. Their helm ribbons snapped in the rotting air. Lyd sniffed.
“What d’you say,” said the freckled soldier, turning the vial of grey liquid in her hand. “We rustle up a bit of gin from Marcel and drink tonics to the poor, dead enemy?”
“Sure,” said Suse, grinning. She raised her own vial in a mock toast. Lyd mimicked her, watched the cloudy ampoule gleam in the sun.
“May we never live again!”
“How did it happen, again?” said Clovette, frowning at the covered well. Vines cracked its black-brick pier, thick and scraggy. A scent of watery rot filtered neath the locked wooden lid.
“Ah,” said Louis. He knelt on crunching cherry leaves, tried a ring of keys on the lock. “It was a drunk. Tumbled in. Nobody noticed til the water went bad.”
“Poorsalaud...” said Clovette, looking out at the town. Leaning houses, as crooked and mossy as the choking cherry trees, clustered round the ancient well. Eyes peered from upper frames of windows, watched the cutters anxiously. Clovette, leaning on one bole, squinted at them.
“No one to notice he had gone.”
There was a thump and a wet gargle from the well. The cutters listened to echoing splashes, scraping on stone.
“Well, they noticed eventually,” said Louis, trying another key.
“A shame they did not medicate the well,” said Clovette, fingering the axe on her belt.
Another key failed to turn. “They are too poor for such salt.”
“They can afford us.”
“Bien sûr, we are cheap and hungry.”
“True,” said the gaunt Clovette. “Suppose they would need to retrieve the corpse, in any case.”
A key ground in the lock. “Here we are,” said Louis. Something bumped beneath the well cover, snarled in a wet and mangled throat. Watching eyes went wide, ducked down behind sills.
Clovette straightened, pulled the long hatchet from her belt. Louis brushed his knees, produced a net and long-neck bottle filled with something grainy.
“Ready? he said. Clovette hooked her fingers under the well cover, nodded. “Ready.”
She threw the well cover open. It creaked, crashed wide. The cutters crouched, listened to a scraping grow near. As soon as a scrape of spongy flesh peeled over the pier, they struck.
Louis’ net went flying. Clovette’s axe thudded into a putrid limb. There was a gargling screech, a splatter of grave water. Glass shattered. Granules of grey scattered on the beast, smoked where they touched the flesh. It gurgled, wavered, toppled back, took the net and hatchet with it.
There was a splash. “Merde,” grumbled Louis, tossed the broken bottle neck. It shattered on the pier. “Well...” said Clovette, peering down the shaft.
“Look at it this way. We did not say we would both salt the grue and remove it from the well, did we?”
Coastal civilization is forever besieged. The small, ragged realm which Litorans call their own is beset, predated by terrors from beyond frayed borders.
Beasts descend from trackless hills, eager for flesh. Predatory älves slip from darkened woods, itching for wickedness and abduction. Inexorable disease creeps in the very air; perverts humans' own bodies after death.
Little exists to favor the Litorans. Only by a few, key tools are the forces of the Other kept marginally at bay: Fire razes the pitiless wood, dissuades the beast. Iron breaks the careless ground, burns the älf. Grisodate salt purifies the squalid masses, quashes incipient life within the dead.
It is this last tool which is the most precious. Grey salt: Humanity's most precious armor.
Grisodate is a precious salt dredged from the eponymous Bay of Grey. It is treasured for its antibiotic properties. Grisodate wards off a plethora of maladies, banishes latent plague infection. Without their salt, human populations would be ravaged by disease and murderous grues.*
Grisodate is a medicinal standard. It is widely consumed by the Coastal populace. General stores keep it in dry safes, sell it dry by the gram or bottled as a tonic. Pharmacies keep casks of the stuff, add it to any and all serums, potions, or elixirs.
People put it in food. Grey salt in cuisine is a tasteful show of wealth. It's mixed with gin to create the classic gin and tonic, patted onfoie gras before searing, sprinkled on iced flowers with melted caramel.
By necessity, soldiers receive grey salt as part of their pay. A medicated force is essential, lest battlefields become like the crawling death-plains of old. Risky service professions, like soldiery, include salt in their pay. From this practice, we derive the phrase "worth one's salt."
Cutters carry grisodate, if they can afford it. It aids significantly in the hunting of grues, as it burns and immobilizes their diseased tissues. A grisodate paste may be concocted for such reasons. It is smeared on the killing edges of weapons for particular effect. Similarly, small bombs or handheld aspergiliums may be used to sow salt in the bony flesh of the scuttling dead.
A wise cutter will also carry grey salt to dissuade älves. A circle of piled grains sprinkled around one's camp will keep the creatures from wreaking mischief in the night.** Scholars suppose that the presence of such salt weakens the influence of the Otherworld in a given area. As a result, älves become wary in its presence, stripped as they are of the protections of their misty realm.
Grisodate is political substance. It is mined plentifully only in the Bay of Grey, a duchy of Firlund.*** Coastal powers are forced to maintain good relations with that northern realm, lest the Crown of Firls employ punishing salt taxes or trade embargoes. Due to its near-monopoly, Firlund holds both immense wealth and titanic political might.
Despite grisodate's potency, it is an imperfect preventative. Its active duration in the human body is short and unpredictable. The salt may ward off infection for no more than a few days, and its effectiveness and duration are only partially influenced by dose.
To compensate for patchy effectiveness, Coastal folk consume grisodate as often as they can afford it. Aristocrats have it with every meal. The working class take it weekly or as a luxury. The poor and the peasantry are largely unable to afford their salt. They are most at risk. Wealthy metropolitan areas are mostly free of sickness, while slums and sorry countrysides crawl with affliction and plague.
Grey salt does not ward against all illness. While, syphilis, and consumption are prevented by the stuff, blight, grippe, and pox are not.† Grisodate may help clean a wound, but it will not save a person from pox outbreak.
Use of grisodate salt carries a variety of side effects. Its presence in the body curtails certain varieties of cell replication. Short term or immediate use produces no visible side effect, is valued for promoting general good health. Regular, light consumption of grisodate induces temporary sterility in both men and women after a month. This is valued, as it is a common means of Coastal contraception.
Heavy use over a period of several months induces fragility of the nails and hair, causes the skin to become delicate and transparent. Digestive and respiratory issues also ensue. Some circles of Firlish aristocracy find these side effects to be highly attractive. They value an air of fragility and wealth.
Some folk abstain from grisodate consumption. They ague it weakens the human race, inhibits the body's ability to fight disease, and lowers fertility to a rate of non-replacement. While these objectors may be true, they tend to live short, diseased lives.
* Plague infection does not kill directly. Read more on that here.
** Unless, of course, the älf has a long broom.
*** Other mines exist. They are fearful, frigid places.
† Doubly unfortunate, as pox is usually the disease to spark off a plague epidemic.