The Believers – Chapter 10

They were in groups, just inside the trees, looking out across the field at their objective.  They’d dropped their overnight gear in small piles, and now crouched low, ready to pounce.  Each of them was eyeing the wall they were about to attack.  They had climbing gear, and while some of the ropes would doubtlessly get cut by the defenders, there were far too many, and once a few of them crossed the wall, the others would swarm over quickly enough.  They’d practiced this drill against higher walls than the one they faced.  And the bulk of the tournament matches had just been held recently, which was by far the best way to train for hand-to-hand combat.  The defenders weren’t their biggest worry- they’d be swept aside quickly, and the attackers could get to their real objective.

Dresten, Saia, Odyna, and most especially Idzac.  Ten traitorous members of the Order, trained in all their tactics – and in Idzac’s case, one of the oldest and most-respected hand-combat instructors they’d studied under.  It would be difficult enough to face them, but each of them now suspected that these were the people responsible for the slaughter of their brothers and sisters at the old Compound.  The night the Great Rock was over-run by the Turned burned in their memory just as clearly as the years of calling these people brothers and sisters.  But they were all formidable opponents.  These were what worried the assembled members of the Order as they prepared to sprint across the fields.

All but Ilyana.  She had another worry, and it was growing in her mind with every passing minute.  Her eyes were turned toward the skies.  She wasn’t in charge, not even of her group- she was Tasia’s lieutenant for this assault – but she felt danger, and couldn’t keep it to herself.

“Sister, these clouds worry me.”   She breathed deep, smelling the air.  “It’s going to get darker, and quite possibly dark enough for the Turned to come out of the trees.”  She pointed off into the distance, to the skies on the other side of the village.  “Those clouds over there are coming toward us.  They’re not quite dark enough for the Turned, but we can’t see what kind of clouds are behind them.”

Tasia nodded.  “The wind is moving them quickly today.  But even if the sky darkens that much, it can’t stay that way for long.  The Turned may take a few steps out of the forest, but they won’t stay out for long.  And we’ve fought in the rain before.  We aren’t wearing anything that can rust.”

Ilyana shook her head.  “Sister, I have only been wrong about the weather once in my life.  We could make it back to the villages we staged from, and return tomorrow.”  She looked upward again.  “This is not worth the risk.”

Tasia shrugged.  “If the clouds darken while we’re on the road back to our staging points, we’ll be just as doomed.  We have our orders, and the time is now.  If you’re worried about the Turned, let’s get over that wall.”

Tasia straightened, then shouted a command.  The brothers and sisters all around the pair leaped forward, cleared the trees, and began charging toward the wall.  From the trees, 50 meters in both directions, the other teams leaped forward in a great surge.  There were nearly 90 fighters from the Order charging down the lanes between crop fields.

*****

Lincoln and Tajita were just getting their wagons clear of the gate. Marlena and Xeren were at the end of the line, looking behind them as the black-clad attackers closed in.  Inside the village was near-chaos, but the village fighters were arming themselves quickly, and a half-dozen stood ready to fight.  The guards eyed the Immune- three of them, now!- with great suspicion, but didn’t stop them from entering.  People were rushing indoors, and some climbed up onto the platforms set against the walls.  Four or five of them were archers, but there weren’t nearly enough arrows.  As the last wagon rolled clear, Marlena’s blood froze for a moment.  There were ten people in a group, dressed precisely like the Believers, standing just out of the way of the wagons.  The only difference was that they all had the hoods on their cloaks pulled up, over their heads.  But they looked as if they were preparing to dash out and meet the attack.

Xeren had the same reaction.  The oldest of the group before them saw the two women’s expressions, and nodded.  He stepped closer to them, his hands behind him.

“They’re here for us.  We won’t hide here and force these people to fight.”  His voice was surprisingly solid for an old man.

Xeren shook her head.  “They’re only part of the problem.  It’s about to get a lot worse.”

Marlena looked the older man up and down.  “You left, and they came to force you to come back?”

The old man’s face looked tired for a moment.  A younger man, weathered by time in the wild, stepped up next to him, and answered.

“No.  We tried to destroy them, but not everyone was killed.”  He cocked his head slightly, looking at Marlena’s eyes.

The unspoken question again, she thought.  She slowly lifted a hand to her glasses, sliding them down her nose just far enough for him to see her eyes.  He didn’t flinch, but merely nodded.  Then all four of them turned their heads as one of the defenders shouted from his platform on the other side of the village.

On the eastern road, a column of horsemen was clearing the forest, and fanning out into a broad line just inside the fields.  50 or 60 soldiers in heavy armor were preparing a charge.

Xeren took a deep breath.  “This was the warning I carried,” she said, nodding her head to the East.  “I didn’t know the Believers were coming until I got here.”  Marlena looked toward the horsemen, her face blank.  Even at this distance, she could recognize the uniforms of Carter’s Hill.  It wouldn’t matter which army broke down the wall… the village was doomed.  Unless…

*****

Gordon looked over at the officer next to him. No one was sure what his name was, but they certainly followed orders he gave.  The other soldiers were in full armor, ready to fight the Turned if need be, but no one expected to.

Across the field, moving toward the village wall, was a crowd of people dressed in solid black.  He couldn’t count them from that far away, but he was sure he knew who they were.  He turned quickly to the command officer, whose face darkened for a moment, then twisted into a wicked grin.

“Something I need to know, Gordon?”  His voice was gravelly, almost mocking the junior officer.  His eyes turned to Gordon, to gauge his reaction.

“The people we fought were dressed like that, but there were only ten of them last time.  They must have called for help.”

The commander’s eyebrows rose.  “Only ten of them, eh?”

“Hey, if we’d been defeated by that bunch out there,” he pointed, “I would have said so.  It would have sounded much better than telling Donovan that we were defeated by people we outnumbered two-to-one.”  The commander shrugged, conceding the point.

The other junior officer, on the other side of the commander, squinted.  “I’d guess 70 or 80 of them, sir.  All on foot, and no armor visible.”

The commander drew his sword, holding it to the sky in the timeless signal to attack.  “We’re prepared for them this time.”  He pointed the sword forward, and the line of mounted soldiers advanced.

*****

Ilyana caught sight of the mounted soldiers just after Tasia did. The Order had slowed its pace now, from a charge to a fast jog, and was beginning to concentrate in the north-western field.  Cygna’s group was just beside theirs, and they heard the senior officer shout a command at his group.  They stopped in their tracks, then swung their packs from their backs down to their sides, pulling their sectional polearms out and locking them together.  Tasia gave the order for her group to do the same.

Ilyana stood beside her, assembling her weapon.  “Sister, this is getting far more complicated than we bargained for.”

“We’ve dealt with mounted soldiers before.  We’ve trained for this,” came the terse reply.

“Yes, sister, we have, but they have prepared for us, as well.”  Ilyana pointed at the approaching soldiers.  “They’re carrying spears.  Not all of us are trained for that.”

Tasia snapped the blade of her weapon onto the end of its shaft.  “Those of us who have will receive the attack.”  She began speaking to the group instead of just Ilyana.  “Dismount them first, and their primary advantage is gone.  Those with training against mounted charge, front of the line and spread out.  Force them to spread out.  Don’t trouble yourselves to spare the horses.”

The warriors from the Order were now spread in a line that mirrored the charging horsemen.  In many cases, the older brothers and sisters could deal with amounted charge.  For the rest, it would be a matter of who had the longer spear.

*****

Marlena and Dresten stood on the platform, side by side. They were on the northern wall, and could see both advancing armies.  There were 25 defenders total in the village, and they were hastily arming themselves.  Dresten was shaking his head.

“There’s a lot of younger brothers and sisters out there,” he sighed.  “Not all of them have been trained to receive a mounted spear-charge.”

“They’re all your brothers and sisters?” Marlena asked, staring at the line of fighters as they moved into position.  Their weapons were all held in the same grip, the same angle, and even at a distance each one seemed like a wound-up trap waiting to be sprung.

“Yes.  The Order is a family, and has been for as long as we’ve kept a history.  Organized not long after the Turned first appeared, when the ancients still fought for their cities.  Ever since, we’ve been agents of the Creator’s goal of exterminating human-kind.”

Marlena’s eyebrows rose.  She’d heard imams, priests and self-titled apostles speak of religion in many different tones, but this was a new one.  She turned to look at him.  “You believe your God wanted all humankind to die?  And that’s why you attack villages the way you do?”

He nodded, slowly.  “That’s why he created the Turned.  Humans had brought destruction to most of the earth, corrupted everything they touched.  Now, most of the earth is green and healthy again.  That’s mainly because there’s so many fewer humans.  The Order attacks the defenses people put up to stop the Turned from finishing their task.”

That’s when the meaning behind his tone came through to her.  “But you don’t believe it anymore.”

“No.  Over many years, the Order has been straying from its path, its leadership behaving more like dictators, like those that control Carter’s Hill.  The survival of the Order has always been important – we had to survive long enough to ensure that the Creator’s plan was carried out- but somewhere along the years, survival and growth had become more important than the mission.  And then last year, one of our sisters brought to us proof that the Order was no less corrupt than humankind had been before the Turned arrived.  She showed us the true roots of our religion, and we’re trying our best to find our way back to them.  Along with the ten of us, she breached the defenses of the old Compound and the Turned over-ran it.  Most of them were killed, but not quite all of them.”

“And now they’ve come here for you.”  He nodded his reply.

“Where is this sister of yours, who convinced you to turn against them?” She asked, looking up at him.

“I don’t know.  She visited us in the night, not too long ago, but I haven’t seen her much since we left the Order.  She’s… infected.  Immune, like you are.”

Marlena nodded silently for a moment, then a smile crept across her face.  “I think she and I have met.”

*****

When the mounted soldiers reached their opponents, the clash was immediately deafening.  Several of the fighters on foot were run through or trampled, but enough of them knew what to do.  The blade of their weapons were excellent for use against a mounted soldier swinging a sword, but against a spear it had less advantage.  The Order rarely trained it’s fighters to meet force with similar force.  So the older brothers and sisters executed a somewhat complicated maneuver as the mounted soldiers closed in.

They stepped across the horse’s path, forcing their opponent to cross the spear over their mount’s necks.  Then the polearms were reversed, and the large iron ring on the back of the weapon came into use.  It took precise timing, and months of practice to get right, but more than half of the charging soldiers found their spear-points led downward and directly into the earth.  With the shafts of their spears couched firmly under their arms, the mounted men were quickly vaulted into the air and landed flat on their backs.  Many got to their feet in time to draw their swords, but some were killed before they could roll over.

The older brothers and sisters moved toward the soldiers who were still mounted.  They were wheeling their horses for another charge, but didn’t have much time.  Some threw their spears, but vainly.  Cygna and Tasia, as well as the other leaders amongst the Order, approached the mounted soldiers.  With carefully-practiced precision, they leaped high enough to unseat their opponents with kicks or thrusts of their weapons.  The numbers were roughly matched now, and only a dozen or so of the armored soldiers still held their mounts.  The ensuing melee was brutal, and was happening within 50 meters of the village wall.  The defenders were on the watch-platforms now, and beside them stood Dresten and Saia and their friends, as well as many of the gypsies from both visiting clans.  They watched, wide-eyed, as the two forces that had originally come to destroy the village now made haste to destroy each other.

*****

But that was not all they watched.  Increasingly, the clouds had darkened, and it wasn’t long before there wasn’t enough light to cast a shadow.  Amazingly, rain had not yet begun to fall.   Marlena looked off toward the tree-line, and could see that the Turned had wasted no time.  They were already crossing the field.  She couldn’t tell whether or not they’d cover the distance before the clouds thinned out again.  But then she saw that they wouldn’t have to.  Dresten tapped her shoulder, and pointed toward the lake.

Heads had started to appear, parting the water singly and in pairs, but now they rose out of the water by the dozens, marching toward the exposed fighters in the fields.  There were hundreds of them- perhaps thousands – as if the entire bottom of the lake had been populated with them.  The two groups didn’t notice at first, but one of the younger brothers of the Order – perhaps 14 – saw the approaching horde and screamed at the top of his lungs.

At once, the fighting ceased.  The Turned moved directly toward them, but many of those behind the front rank had begun to fan out, and the battle suddenly found itself nearly flanked on both sides.  They could have tried to escape by moving east or west, but the Turned were marching out of the forest in those directions, and they wouldn’t get far.

*****

Ilyana was not far from the lake, on the eastern edge of the battle, when she heard the scream.  She had just knocked one of the armored soldiers off his feet, and delivered the killing blow.  She turned toward the lake instead of looking for another opponent to engage, and her jaw went slack at what was before her.

She had seen the Turned almost every night of her life, but not like this.  These water-saturated dead had decayed differently, were bloated and fat, their skin and hair more intact but a sickly blue-green color.  Being more intact made them more grotesque, not less.  Most still had their eyes, half-closed and staring to the sides or upwards at nothing in particular.  And while the Turned could be smelled at great distance, the reek of the water-dwelling Turned nearly made her vomit.  The younger brother who had screamed swung his polearm at the nearest of them, slicing it in half at the torso.  He was quickly grabbed by two others that were just behind the first, and they pulled him off his feet before biting into his arms.  Others quickly joined in, reaching for his kicking legs and pulling them out from under him.  At least a dozen of them began eating him while the others pressed forward, reaching for the rest of the living.

Some had stopped to feed upon the fallen, but these were too few to slow down the fate closing in on the battle.  Ilyana couldn’t see Cygna’s face, but Tasia stood beside him, and the two sisters’ eyes locked.  A silent shared look communicated Ilyana’s message: I am not going to die fighting beside you- not like this. She immediately turned away, looking for an escape, but even if she ran from the Turned coming out of the lake, those coming from the trees would have her in a few minutes.  The clouds were still getting darker, not lighter.  There was nowhere else to go but the wall.  Skirting the edge of the compressed group of the living, she sprinted away from the lake, praying to the Creator that her sister – her real sister – was inside.

*****

Saia watched as one of their sisters dashed toward the flat expanse of cement block wall. She knew the force had been sent to kill them all, and knew that they couldn’t save this girl.  She looked to the left, a few meters away to where Dresten stood next to the Immune woman he’d been talking to, and he met her gaze.  He didn’t shake his head, didn’t give any sign at all, but he didn’t have to.  They both understood.  One of the archers nocked an arrow, then bent his bow.  Dresten took two steps toward the archer, touched his shoulder, and shook his head.

“It’d be a kindness, sir,” the archer said, slowly relaxing his bow.

“Not yet.  If they get to her, then.  But not yet.”

The girl had left the group of living fighters not long before it became too late for anyone else to make it.  The Turned now surrounded the melee, who had wisely put aside their own conflict and pointed all their weapons outward.  But the force from Carter’s Hill had been equipped to fight humans, and hadn’t spared the extra cargo to bring flame weapons with them.  And the Order almost never used them unless they were defending their Compound.  Their belief was that the Turned existed to exterminate all humans, and if members of the Order were caught by the walking dead, they should give themselves over to their fate.

Apparently those fighting in the fields before them let that belief slip in the face of their own deaths.  They cut at the approaching hands and heads, severing a great many of them, but the Turned were all pushing forward, not just those in front.  Those behind pushed the front ranks right onto the weapons before them, and kept pushing until the living were within reach.  The circular pack of living fighters compressed more and more until they could barely move, let alone fight.  Then they were pulled away from each other, in some cases pulled apart while they were still alive, and the Turned did not take the time to end their lives before they began to feast on them.  The screams became more numerous, and more and more painful as the Turned bit off more and more mouthfuls of living flesh.

Most of the dead that had risen from the lake were focused upon this group of readily-available meat, but those that had come from the forest were closing in on the walls, quickly.  The one remaining survivor was against the wall now.  Saia stepped back from the platform, not wishing to watch this last woman fall.  But then a scream cut the air and made her spine freeze.

“Blood sister!  BLOOD SISTER!”

Saia leaped up onto the platform nearest the source of the scream, pushing two people out of the way and nearly knocking a third off the platform completely.  She leaned over the wall and looked down to see Ilyana reaching toward her, face streaming with tears, eyes begging for help.

Saia spun, looking for anything she could lower over the wall.  It was only four meters high, but it was too far for her to just reach.  She caught Dresten’s eyes for a split second.  Her face mirrored Ilyana’s pleas for help.  He sighed deeply, then swung his polearm up and detached the blade from the weapon.  He tossed the long shaft across the space between them, and she caught it easily.  She turned to the wall, lowering the ring down within reach from the ground.  Ilyana gripped it tightly, then pushed her feet against the wall.  Saia had enough of the shaft on her end to use it as a lever, resting it near its middle on the top of the wall.  Ilyana pulled upward, hand-over-hand, while Saia levered her upward, until the shaft was parallel to the ground and Ilyana hung from it, just on the other side of the wall and not quite out of reach of the Turned who were only a few meters away.  Ilyana moved her hands to the wall, one at a time, and felt three pairs of hands reach over and grip her arms and shoulders.  Idzac, Odyna, and a woman she’d never seen had a solid grip on her.  Then she felt an equally solid grip on her ankle.  She turned to look down, and saw a decrepit body reaching its other hand upward to get a better hold.  She screamed again, this time with rage, swinging her other foot in a well-placed and powerful kick that hit the dead body squarely in the forehead.  A good patch of skin detached, but the corpse didn’t let go.  It was almost tall enough to get its teeth into her foot.

Farther down the wall, the archer drew back the string of his bow again.  He’d been practicing his archery since the day Dresten and his friends had suggested it, but had been possessed by his practice since they’d repelled the first attack from Carter’s Hill.  It had become his specialty.  For a split second, his mind reviewed the situation as his eye lined up his shot.  This woman had been sent to attack his city, perhaps to kill Dresten and Idzac and the others.  The village owed those people their lives.  But now these guests saw fit to rescue one of the fighters sent to kill them.  Whether they were right or wrong, he would do everything he could to help them.

Ilyana’s trained kick had projected a great amount of force, but the impact of the arrow was far more concentrated.  The Turned don’t require a brain to function, but the shock and the sideward angle it came from was enough to break its grip.  It fell sideways, bumping into the others around it, and by the time it could straighten, Ilyana was over the wall.

Saia was crouched next to her, embracing her.  Ilyana buried her face in her sister’s shoulder, her body wracked with sobs.  It took nearly ten minutes before she could stop.  She didn’t need to see Dresten’s shoulders slump as he inspected her ankle.  She’d felt the scratches as the corpse had lost its grip.  She was crying as one who knows they are condemned.

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