The Immune – Chapter 12

Jameson walked alongside the Jennings’ carriage, easily keeping pace with the horses pulling the armored box over the uneven dirt road.  David Jennings held the reins, and the two youngest children in the family sat atop the roof behind him, taking turns reading from a large book.

They were close to Carter’s Hill, with perhaps one more over-night stay in the wild.  Being out in the open after dark hadn’t troubled Jameson much since he’d discovered his Immunity, but for some reason he still thought his friends were safer when they were behind the fence or cement wall of a village.  It seemed illogical to him – he’d seen first-hand that even the cement walls were not a guarantee of safety, and had never yet seen these carriages breached – but the feeling was there, nevertheless.  The closer to Carter’s Hill they got, the more relaxed he felt.

Which was, in itself, illogical for him. That city had never meant ‘safety’ to him before.

Atop the lead carriage, Jameson saw Marlena stand up and wave to him to come forward.  He picked up his pace, passing two more carriages before getting close enough to grab ahold of Lincoln’s moving carriage.  He scaled up the ladder to the top, and crossed the roof to stand next to her, just behind the driver’s seat.  Lincoln was humming to himself, keeping the horses at a steady pace.

She didn’t need to speak – Jameson could feel it the moment he’d joined her.  The Infection gave him the ability to sense the Turned or other Immune, like himself.  But it also attuned him to the presence of un-infected people.  He reasoned that it was how the Turned followed their prey without being able to truly see.  Now, that sense was telling him that there were several people ahead of them, hiding in the trees and undergrowth on either side of the road.

Marlena nodded.  “I’d guess we’ve got about four minutes.  Grunnell is in his armor… perhaps you should put on yours, too.”

“That’ll give me enough time to get the cuirass on, that’s about it,” he replied.  His belongings were in one of the carriages the troupe used to house the animals overnight, farther behind them in the train.  He spun in place, leaping down to the ground and dashing past each of the carriages.  He gave a short nod to the driver of each carriage, which they all returned.  They didn’t raise an audible alarm – if an ambush was waiting for them, as they feared, they didn’t want to tip off their attackers.  As Jameson passed the Richards’ carriage, Leon – the father of that family – handed the reins to his wife Billie, then moved back toward the roof-hatch.  Jameson heard him calling instructions to the children riding inside, but had moved on before hearing them clearly.

Next was Grunnell Haeglund’s carriage.  His wife, Lavender, drove the carriage, with their young daughter Lena beside her.  The two women smiled down at him, but their expression changed as he came close.

“Grunnell?” he called up to them as he passed.

“Inside, getting his sharpening tools.” Lavender replied.  She reached behind her and slapped the roof of the carriage twice.  Jameson continued past them, reaching the first of the animal carriages.

Jacob McCandles drove this one.  Jameson again scaled up to the roof.

“Trouble?” Jacob called over his shoulder.

“Maybe. Better safe than squishy, right?” Jameson replied, opening the roof hatch and climbing inside.  The Von Allen sisters were sitting close, whispering to each other, falling silent when he entered.

“We might have trouble – looks like there’s an ambush waiting ahead of us,” he said, crossing the animal pens and pulling his chest-plate down off a shelf.  He’d built it heavier than normal, too much for a normal person to wear for long, but his own Immunity had blessed him with un-natural endurance.  Not that he was much stronger than he was before, he just didn’t tire.

The sisters looked at him, then at each other.  “What should we do?”

He shrugged, then slipped his arms into the straps.  “It’s probably just a wild bandit clan.  We run into those every so often.  With Marlena and Grunnell and I, they shouldn’t be a problem.  Just stay here, I guess – one thing they often try to do is kidnap young women. If they don’t see you, they won’t make you a target.”

He tightened the straps and secured the buckles, then pulled down his axe.  He climbed back up the ladder, stopping once to glance at the pair of young women.  “I’ll let you know when it’s safe.”  They nodded, then returned to their whispering.

The moment he closed the roof hatch, he heard shouting from ahead of him.  Marlena was already fighting, standing between Lincoln’s carriage and two young men with rusty axes.  They were dressed fairly well for living in the wild- Jameson guessed that their clothes had been stolen.  Grunnell was moving to join Marlena, but stopped beside the Jennings’ carriage as three more bandits came out of the trees.  The giant had left his helmet behind – probably deliberately – and had brought the oversized sword instead of his axe. Being on the road for years had meant Grunnell had fought bandits just as much as he’d fought the Turned, and he was equally deadly with either weapon. The sword was his choice because it was intimidating.  Jameson moved to join him, hefting his own axe.  Another pair of attackers came out of the woods across the way from Grunnell, and Jameson moved to prevent them from hitting his friend in the back.

Jameson could tell they were poorly trained within ten seconds of reaching them.  Not only did they hesitate more than experienced bandits would, when the first one swung at him, it was clumsy, and the second one hadn’t coordinated his own attack.  Jameson dodged the wild swing, then stepped in close and drove the butt of his axe handle into the first bandit’s cheek.  The man fell like a sack of stones.  Again, the second attacker hesitated, and when he finally did swing, Jameson entangled his own axe-head with his attackers, twisting the shaft and pulling his opponent’s weapon right out of his hands.  It landed on the ground beside them, and Jameson put a foot on it.

Another hesitation.  Jameson began to feel pity for the man.  He looked like he was in his 20th year or so, and was far more scared than he should have been.  Jameson had seen bandits a handful of times, and while they were desperate, they were usually far more self-confident.  When the attacker turned to run, Jameson hooked his axe-head around the man’s ankle, tripping him.  He rolled onto his back, and found the sharp edge of Jameson’s axe resting on his throat.

“Why don’t you just hold still there, friend,” Jameson said.  He twisted his head around to look at Grunnell, who was just chasing the last of his own opponents back into the trees.  The giant walked over to Jameson, calmly, and nodded his approval at his student’s work.

“Not a bad idea to keep a few alive… might as well find out what they’re doing,” the giant half-grumbled.

Jameson nodded toward the front of the caravan.  “Will Marlena and the others be ok?”

Grunnell smiled, looking ahead.  “You can’t see them from here, but Svetlana is back, and she didn’t come alone.  You go ahead, I’ll keep our new friend company.”

Jameson looked back at his capture, who looked ready to wet himself.  Then he began jogging toward the front of the caravan.

Sure enough, Svetlana was disarming the last of the attackers when he approached.  The man fled, and Svetlana let him go.  Marlena was breathing heavily, the knife in her hand bloody, and two dead bandits at her feet. And beside her was Xeren, just putting her own knife back into its sheath.

“I’ve seen a lot more dangerous bandit clans than that one,” Jameson said with a smirk.

Marlena spun to look at him, a strange and confused look in her eyes.  “Jameson, I thought you were at the back of the caravan.”

Jameson stopped in his tracks, taken aback.  “I was…” he stammered, “Grunnell is back there with the two that attacked me- one is unconscious, the other has more-or-less surrendered.”

“No, that’s not it,” she said.  “I thought I sensed you back there.”  She looked along the line of the caravan, and Jameson followed her gaze.  He’d been so focused on the fight, he hadn’t sensed the presence of any other Immune.  But now that the adrenaline was leaving him, he knew right where they were.

Xeren joined them.  “Someone else is back there?”

“Yes,” Marlena said.  “Two other Immune.”

Grunnell’s shout reached them a moment later, as if on cue. “Friends, we’ve got trouble!”

The group of Immune jogged back to the giant, where he was helping their young captive to his feet.  “Our new friend here has some things to tell you,” he said.

The young man blanched at seeing the Immune so close – even if Xeren didn’t show it – and began stuttering.  “It wasn’t our idea – they were going to pay us in food.  We hadn’t eaten for days.”

“Who?” Marlena asked.

“The two Immune that found us yesterday,” he stuttered.  “They walked through the Turned outside our hideout without a care in the world.  They told us you’d be coming this way, that if we attacked, they’d pay us in healthy meat.  They gave us a sample.  All we had to do, they said, was give them a few minutes to get what they were after.”

“Which was…” Xeren asked.

Jameson answered.  “The Von Allen girls.”  His lips pressed tightly.  His eyes met Marlena’s.  “They must be the Immune that followed them to Silverlake, the ones that dug the tunnel.”  Marlena nodded.

“Huh?” Xeren asked.

“We’ll explain later.  For now, we’ve got to get after those two while we can still track them.”

“This way,” Svetlana said, moving off into the trees faster than Jameson had ever seen her move.  Marlena and Xeren followed, and he dashed after them.

The ground rose as they left the road, climbing up a small hill before easing downward into a low, shadowy valley.  Jameson caught up to Xeren after a minute or so, his breath coming easier than it should have at that pace.

“By the way,” he said between breaths, “good to see you again.”

She smiled at him, her own breathing heavier than his.  “I guess… I picked… a good time… to visit…”

Svetlana and Marlena were ahead of them, by about 10 meters, when the two split up suddenly.  Jameson followed Marlena, and Xeren came with him.

An arrow streaked through the air past him, barely missing his shoulder.  He looked along its flight path, seeing a tall man on another hill in front of them.  At his feet was Janelle, her wrists and ankles bound with thin rope.  His sleeveless tunic and long pants were black, and even at a distance of 40 meters, Jameson could tell he was strong.

He was also an excellent archer.  The skill of shooting a bow and arrow had almost become a lost art, being nearly useless against the Turned.  Some villages continued their practice, for use against attacks by larger bandit clans, but finding someone who was really good at it was rare.  This man was an exception.  Not only was he firing very accurately – barely missing, and firing at moving targets 30 or 40 meters away – but he was firing very quickly.  He held a fistful of arrows in the same hand as the center of the large bow, and it took only a few seconds for him to nock each arrow, take aim, loose his shot, and prepare the next one.  Marlena hid behind a large tree, and a moment later Jameson was behind another tree close to her.  Xeren joined Marlena.

Each time Jameson peeked around the tree trunk, an arrow dove into the wood just beside his shoulder.  He looked around the other side, locking eyes with Marlena.

“Go find the other,” Jameson called to her.  “We’ll handle this.”  Xeren nodded, drawing her knife.  Marlena ran directly away from the archer, then moved from one tree to another, waiting to make her break until Jameson made his move.

“Move to the right,” he called to Xeren.  “Stay behind trees, and move while he’s shooting at me.”

Xeren cocked an eyebrow.  “What are you going to do?”

Jameson smirked.  “Cover my head.”  He slid around the other side of the tree, then moved in an erratic line toward the archer’s position.  One hand held the axe, gripping the shaft just below the head.  His left arm was nearly wrapped around his head, at an upward angle.

It happened faster than he’d expected.  His forward motion was stopped completely by a hard impact in the center of his chest.  He looked down, only for a moment, and saw the arrow land on the forest floor.  His cuirass had a significant dent in it, but not deep enough to touch his skin through the padding.  He started moving forward again, trying to dodge another arrow and failing.  This one glanced off his left side, under his raised arm.

In his peripheral vision, he could see Xeren moving to another tree.  The archer fired at her, hitting her tree squarely, and giving Jameson time to get closer.

20 meters.  Another arrow hit him, squarely in the sternum, this time penetrating the steel skin.  It did not move much farther than that, though; it merely hung in the steel plate, its point buried harmlessly in the padding.  It was followed closely by another, which made a dent, but fell to the floor.  Jameson kept moving, and Xeren matched his movement.  The archer fired at her once or twice, but Jameson was the greater threat.

10 meters. At this point, the archer began to realize their strategy was going to work unless he changed something.  He began firing at Jameson even faster, an arrow every two seconds or so – unbelievably fast, Jameson thought.  He wouldn’t have thought anyone could shoot accurately at that speed, but almost every shot hit Jameson’s cuirass.  By the time he got within 5 meters, there were four arrows sticking out of his armor.

But then Jameson realized the flaw in his plan.  Any closer, and the archer could easily hit him in the legs or the head.  He couldn’t get anywhere near close enough to swing, so aside from throwing his axe, they were more or less at a stalemate.  And Xeren could get no closer than he could.

The archer turned suddenly, hearing something behind him that Jameson could not.  Three arrows sped off into the trees, and Jameson moved in again.  He’d been so focused on the kidnapper that he hadn’t sensed Svetlana’s approach from the other side.

Xeren moved as well, and faster than Jameson.  With three long strides she was beside the archer, slashing with her long blade and leaving a long gash in the man’s side.  He made no sound, didn’t acknowledge the wound at all, but turned sideward and kicked out at Xeren like a mule, pushing her backward.  An arrow followed soon after, hitting her in the shoulder and pinning her to a tree.  She cried out, holding the wounded shoulder, but sitting still.

Jameson had closed with the archer now, swinging his axe at a downward angle, aiming for his opponent’s shoulder.  The man was nearly twice Jameson’s size, but he moved with incredible grace.  He nearly danced backward, spinning out of the axe’s path and raising his bow to fire again, this time from less than a meter away.  Jameson had been in a half-crouch, but straightened up at the last moment.  The arrow had been aimed at his head, but bounced off his cuirass.  He swung his axe again, horizontally this time, and again his opponent danced away.  Jameson didn’t have any strategy for the fight, except to move them both away from Janelle.  He hadn’t had time to get a good look at her, but knew she was behind him now, almost 3 meters away.  With every step, he was gaining an ounce of safety for her – as long as he stood between her and the archer’s bow.

He advanced again, and the archer stood his ground, raising the bow again for another point-blank shot.  Jameson pushed the bow arm aside with the shaft of the axe.  The arrow bounced away.

Just as quickly, the large man dropped the bow and three remaining arrows, stepped forward and threw a punch into Jameson’s face.  The younger man stumbled backward, nearly dropping his axe.

I’m outmatched, Jameson thought, wondering if this man was going to kill him.  The moment after that thought had formed in his mind, a blade drilled into the man’s back.  Svetlana dashed up the hill, drawing another knife and attacking the kidnapper.

Jameson turned to Janelle, his first thought to get her to safety.  He paused mid-stride, seeing Xeren already there, kneeling beside the girl.  She had freed herself of the arrow, but the hole it made looked painful.  She was cutting the young girl’s bonds, keeping her wounded shoulder twisted away.  Jameson helped Janelle to her feet, then put Xeren’s arm around his own shoulder and picked her up.  She winced, but didn’t complain further.

Svetlana joined them a moment later, using a small piece of cloth to wipe her knife clean.  The large man lay still behind her, face-down in the leaves.  She slid the knife back into its sheath, then took a close look at Xeren’s wound.

“It didn’t hit the lung,” she said, resting her hand on Xeren’s good shoulder.  “You’ll be alright.”

Xeren nodded.  “One good thing about being Immune – when you get cut, you don’t have to worry about it getting infected.”

Svetlana smiled, and nodded.  Then she looked up and down at Jameson’s chest-plate.  She pulled one of the arrows out, smiling.

“Where’s Marlena?” He asked.

Svetlana nodded off to their right.  “With the other.  She’s smart enough to know she can’t escape with her hostage, so she’s making threats.  I expect they’re talking, and waiting for us.”

Svetlana led them through the woods, over another small rise in the land, and soon Jameson could sense the other two Immune nearby.  As they crested another hill, he could see them.  They were approaching from behind the other kidnapper, who held a knife point at Hannah’s throat.  The kidnapper looked over her shoulder at the approaching group, and saw Svetlana moving to encircle her.  There was only one direction that still offered her an escape.

“You see?” Jameson heard Marlena say.  “The only way you can make it out of here is to let her go.”

The woman was dressed in black pants and sleeveless tunic, just as the archer had been.  Her eyes narrowed as she took another look at him, then at Janelle.  A moment later, she made her decision, dropped her hostage, and dashed off into the woods.

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