The Believers – Chapter 12

Following the younger Carterson boy was simplicity in itself. He didn’t seem to care if he was being watched or followed.  He arranged his travel himself, and told no one where he was going, but he didn’t make it very hard to find out.

And now Shaw had no trouble following him.  On the road, it had been trickier to keep out of sight.  But in Riverbend, they were just a pair of travelers, each going about their business.  Shaw had purchased a room at the inn, had spent some time looking around the new cement block wall that protected the village.  When he returned outside, his mark was leaving the blacksmith’s shop.  The two passed in the square as Shaw headed toward the gate, appearing to have a look around.  He watched them go through their ritual of closing up for the night, saw the torches being lit, nodded to the fighters as they passed by, changing shifts.  The men and women standing guard now were fresh and well-rested.

The sound that the Turned made when they beat on the new perimeter wall caught Shaw off-guard.  He had spent his whole life watching them approach through a steel wire fence, but he couldn’t see them coming through the cement block walls.  It sounded as much like a wet, slapping sound as anything else.  When they pounded on the wooden gate, it sounded about the way he expected it to.  Not having to look out through the fence and see the dead faces staring back at him, reaching for him, would be a blessing tonight.

It was well after dark when his man emerged from the inn again.  Many off-duty soldiers were going in and out, but they were most of the traffic in the village after dark.  It made spotting him easy.  Following him without being spotted again became tricky.  He was returning to the blacksmith’s shop, and Shaw was just behind the larger of the two village stables, watching him duck under the beams that held up the roof structure.  Most blacksmiths enjoyed having their shops open to the air, so the only wall in most of them was the wall that supported the forge itself.  In this village, the forge-wall faced the gate.  It made sense for a meeting-place, Shaw thought to himself.  None of the guards at the gate would be able to see.  Shaw looked that direction quickly – no one had noticed him or his mark.

He felt breath on his neck, and it made him freeze in place.  Whoever they were, they came up behind him quietly, and he decided in an instant that they meant to attack him.  He spun quickly, intending to drive his elbow into their face, but his arm was stopped by a very firm grip.  His forward knee buckled, being pushed out from under him, but he couldn’t see what had done it.  Next there was an arm winding around his own, forcing the elbow joint straight and then twisting it over.  He tried hard not to shout in pain as his assailant used the leverage of his arm, and the effect it had on his nerves, to drive him down into the ground.  One hand was behind him, and he could feel a knee pressing into his upper back.  Then he felt the assailant put their face close to his ear, and a feminine voice whispered to him in the dark.

“What were your orders for him?  Were you sent to kill him?”

“No,” he grunted, “just to follow him and find out who he was meeting.”

The knee lifted off his back, and his pinned arm was untwisted.  He was roughly rolled onto his back, and found himself staring into eyes that looked bloodshot in the dim light.

“He is meeting with me.”  The grip on his wrist tightened, and then he felt a pinch on the side of his neck.  He felt his eyes roll backward as he lost consciousness.

*****

“It seems our idea to spring the trap early was more accurate than we thought,” Joshua said.  “They revealed their plan to the rest of the families.  I can’t believe that everyone is keeping quiet about this.”

Xeren came close.  The anguish on his face was clear.  He brushed his long hair back, away from his face, but it fell right back to where it had been.  “What is it?” she asked.

“They’re going to stage a breach in the perimeter fences!”  He nearly spat the words.  “They’re going to abandon half of the lower quarter of the city to the Turned.  They’re going to call back most of the soldiers and leave all those people to die.  More than four hundred people live in that section, and they’re just going to seal the gates and trap them there!”  He turned his head sideward, trying hard not to direct his anger at her.  His fists were clenched tight.

This man is more a leader than the entire rest of his family, she thought.  He possesses concern for his people, the one thing everyone else lacks. She clasped his shoulders, redirecting his gaze to her face.

“You didn’t mind it when I suggested something similar for the wealthy section,” she said.  It was an unfair test, she knew.

His disdain focused on her for a moment.  His face tilted sideward slightly, and he stared down into her eyes.  “If the Turned break into the wealthy section, there’s no chance the guards will back away.  If they are seen doing anything less than throwing their own lives away for the people that live there, they’ll be locked outside the gates the very next night.  Believe me, a handful of the Turned getting into the wealthy part of the city will have little effect on the people around that table.”

She smiled, just a little.  “What if it was more than a handful?”

His gaze clouded with confusion and suspicion.  “How many do you mean?”

“What if I could create large holes in the perimeter fence of the wealthy section?  Several large holes, in such way that they wouldn’t have a hope of repairing them before nightfall?”

He was quiet for a long time.  Xeren could see the emotions playing back and forth in his eyes.  He looked at the ground when he spoke.

“They plan on going through with their false breach in 11 days.  Whatever you do has to happen before then.”  He took a deep breath.  “And do it in the late afternoon.  The new city is an hour’s journey.  Give them at least two to get there.”  He took her hands in his own, moving them off his shoulders to hang between them.  “When they run, they’ll most likely take most of the soldiers with them.  There are many people there from the other villages, going through training.  I may be able to convince them to both keep their mouths shut and stay behind to protect people.  There won’t be many, but as long as the fences hold, there may not be a great need for them, either.  Most of the soldiers in that city are concerned with keeping the people from causing trouble.  But with them gone, and with the wealthy section abandoned, perhaps the people can finally organize themselves.  Even if it’s just to get the hell out of there. Or, to set up their own council, whichever.  The city isn’t all that bad…”

“It’s the leadership,” she said, finishing his sentence for him.  He nodded.

She released one of his hands, and touched the side of his face.  “You’re a better person than the rest of your family.  Those people deserve someone like you.”

He smirked.  “People like me know better than to try to become leaders.”

The next sentence came out of her before she realized she was saying it.  “I want you to come to Tarense with me when this is over.”

He didn’t reply.  He merely looked at her, somewhat surprised.

“There’s someone there I’d like you to meet.  The two of you have a lot in common, and he may be able to help you salvage some order from the chaos that’s coming.”

He nodded, slowly, then released her hand and turned to leave.  She watched him for a lot longer than she realized.

*****

“And so, even if we don’t stop in Hammerhand, we’ve had a successful trip. We’ve traded off almost all of our original cargo.  All that’s left from Tarense now are three steel ingots and those last two fur coats.  Not surprising that they’ve been a hard sale, though.  They’re beyond the means of almost everyone we’ve come across.”  Jacob McCandles finished his report, and leaned back in his chair.  Everyone around the table was smiling.

Lincoln smiled, as well.  “I had actually meant those for one of the village councilors in Hammerhand.  She wants a new one almost every year.  Oh, well, they’re not taking up all that much space.  And how many steel ingots did we start the trip with?”

“85,” came the reply.  David Jennings did most of the trading of metals, since he was the most knowledgeable of them.

Lincoln shrugged.  “Well, it makes little difference, I suppose.  If we go to Hammerhand, and they don’t let us trade, then we’re only wasting our time and the food it takes to keep us in the wild for the extra days.  So- how do we look for tradeables once we return to Tarense?”

Leon Richards leaned forward, and pointed his thumb over his shoulder.  “We are carrying more wine back there than I have seen in one place.  I was actually a little worried about finding people willing to buy it all, but there’s a variety of flavors, and it’s all very good stuff.”  He gave Lincoln a small wink.  “With all the people coming to Tarense to work, I believe there will be no trouble finding people who want it.”

Garvin Stetson spoke next.  “The grown food we’ve brought back is excellent.  We’ve done a good job of keeping it coordinated this trip, too.  We’ve traded away- or made use of for ourselves- much of what we picked up in the first few stops, so all of our current cargo will be useable for a good while yet.  With a trip this long, we usually have to worry about some of the corn going bad, but we’ve got plenty of time left to get it all to Tarense.  And as Leon pointed out, there’s more people there now than we’re used to accounting for.”

Lincoln smiled, letting everyone absorb the report.  Being a traveling merchant wouldn’t make them all wealthy, but having a profitable trip was always cause for celebration.  “Marlena, care to share with everyone else what you found outside Red Hill?”

She smiled, then looked over at Jameson, motioning him to speak.  He cleared his throat.  He hadn’t spoken at these meetings yet, and it made him nervous.

“Well, one thing we found in the building was interesting – the ancients had left behind some tools that create explosions.  I’m not sure how powerful they are, but they led us to another very exciting discovery.  The building was apparently built over the top of the beginnings of an iron mine.”  He paused for a moment as eyes went wide all around the table.  “They didn’t dig all that far, but there’s a short tunnel that is lined with iron ore deposits.  They were magnetic enough for Marlena’s knife to stick to the wall.”

David Jennings leaned forward.  “No way you could tell how much was down there, is there?”

Marlena shook her head.  “Not without digging the place up.  But I believe the good people of Tarense would see this as an opportunity, not a competitive threat.”

David nodded vigorously.  “Oh, definetly.  They’re completely overloaded, especially now.  Those cement block walls need steel bars to reinforce them.  The demand has jumped, and they can’t keep up at all.”

“Think they’ll be able to get enough people to move here and set up another mining town?” Leon asked.

“Red Hill isn’t close enough, is it?” Jameson asked.  Heads shook all around.

“No,” David gave voice to the reply, “they’ll need to be right there.  They won’t build a city right around the mine, but they’ll put it close.  They’ll encircle the entrance to the mine, but have it isolated from where everyone lives.”

“It’ll be dangerous to clear out that building,” Marlena said.  “The infected snakes are still there, and I think everyone heard the story of what happened to the last people to go in there unsuspecting.”  Heads nodded around the table.

Lincoln thought he heard something from outside, a strange sound.  He corrected himself- it wasn’t strange, he’d heard it before, but never at this time of night.  It was the sound of someone climbing the ladder on the side of the carriage, and walking across his roof.  The thudding fists of the Turned outside didn’t miss a beat, but somehow someone had gotten through the swarm and now was near the roof hatch.  He looked down the table toward Marlena and Jameson, who both shrugged.

Xeren, Lincoln thought.  She was due back from Riverbend with news from her meeting.  He still marveled at that revelation.  He had figured that everyone who was in power or comfort in Carter’s Hill would do whatever they could to keep things the way they were.  It wouldn’t be the first time that people surprised him with their nature, but he was used to being surprised for the worse, not the better.

The knock atop the carriage got the attention of the rest of the clan.  They were all silent as Lincoln called out for their visitor to enter.  The hatch opened, and a foot appeared on the ladder.  They climbed half-way down, then jumped the rest of the way, turning slowly to face the meeting table.

It wasn’t Xeren.  For a moment, Lincoln thought it was one of the ex-Believers who had taken up residence in Silverlake, but none of them had infected eyes like this woman did.  Marlena rose from her seat, and circled around the table to stand beside Lincoln.

“Svetlana,” she said.

The woman smiled, and brushed her white-blond hair out of her eyes.  “Good to see you again, sister.”  Then she turned her gaze to Lincoln.  “I came to ask for your help.  The people of Carter’s Hill are going to need a lot of it, and soon.  Your friend, Xeren, has set a plan in motion.”

*****

Ilyana sat atop the wall, legs crossed and hands in her lap, gazing out at the Turned as they pressed against the cement blocks.  They were pressed so tightly now that those in front didn’t have enough room to beat their hands against the wall.  They ignored her completely – even a week ago, they’d be reaching up toward her, mouths open in anticipation of biting her, dragging her down among them to feast on her, but now they didn’t realize she existed.  Or they didn’t care.  It was a strange feeling – a fear she’d grown up feeling every night was taking its leave of her, slowly draining from her, and another fear was taking its place.

How long will it take for the Order to find me here? What Saia had told her, and the writings she’d then shown her, were beginning to sink in.  There was a form of anger there, a feeling of betrayal, but also sorrow for her brothers and sisters.  They had been misled, and many of them died because of it.  Worse yet, many more would die in the future for the same reasons.  But if she was seen here with Saia and the others, she’d be hunted, just as they were.

Perhaps worse.  She knew now that she was Immune, but the knowledge was small comfort.  She’d exchanged the danger of being caught by the Turned for the risk of her immunity being discovered by the Order.  The Turned were everywhere, every night, and any one of them even getting a grip on her meant death- or at least, she had always believed it had.  Now freed from that threat, she might already be hunted by a far more intelligent, cunning, and patient opponent.  And she knew it would be difficult for her to raise her hand against those brothers and sisters of hers, even if they meant to kill her.

She heard footsteps on the platform just behind her.  Svetlana had stepped up onto it, and was now climbing up to take a seat beside her.  The two looked at each other for a long moment, then looked back out over the sea of the Turned.  The swarm reached back 30 meters, just past the rough wooden fences that would channel them into lanes through the fields, keeping them from trampling the crops.

“It’s strange at first, almost a shock, knowing that they’re not coming for you anymore,” Svetlana said.  Ilyana only nodded.

“Your eyes haven’t changed,” the elder sister noted.  “Your skin is clear, too.  You share that with Xeren, I think.  You’d have begun to show signs of the infection by now if you were going to.  That gives you an advantage I never had.”

Ilyana looked over, but didn’t speak.

“You know, when I Turned, I had spoken to Symon already, and I knew already there was no going back to the Order.  Not for me.  I was so angry at being lied to.”

“Are you afraid of being caught by them?”

Svetlana nodded.  “Yes.  I can keep that risk low by staying among the Turned, but even so, I’m sure Cheszalt has instructed all the scouts to keep their eyes open.  Is that your fear?”

Ilyana nodded again.

“You don’t really need to stay away from them, you know.  If you show no signs, they won’t know you’re infected… unless you tell them.”  The two talked for a few more minutes, then Svetlana leaned over and gave her sister a hug.  Then she leaped down off the wall, landing amongst the Turned and pushing her way through them until she reached the open lane between the fields.  There she sprinted off toward the trees.  The full moon gave enough light to watch her all the way there.  Then Ilyana turned, climbed down the inside of the wall, and went to talk to Saia about where she would go.

*****

It was still a magnificent natural monument, Cheszalt thought, staring up at the Great Rock.  He didn’t dismount, but sat still, looking up at the titanic stone jutting out of the ground.  It had been a fitting place for the Order to make their home.  How they’d tunneled out all those corridors and halls was a mystery, but at that time they still had many of the ancient wonders and skills.  He missed its halls, the echo-filled training chambers.  He had spent his entire life there, practicing in these fields, returning here from assaults and scout missions.

And now it belonged to the Turned.  He could see them from where he stood, leering out from the mouth of the entrance corridor.  They had to stay back from the beams of light that lanced inward through the opening, but he could tell his presence there made them agitated.  They wanted to come out after him, but the light would burn them if they tried.  When he’d first arrived, an hour earlier, the scent of a living body outside had gotten the Turned farther inside moving, too, and they’d pressed so hard that those in front couldn’t hold them back.  Four or five of them were forced outside, into the light, and now lay still near the entrance.  He wasn’t sure whether they’d get back up when the sun went down, but by then he’d be long gone.

No word yet from Silverlake.  The thought continued to reverberate in his mind.  He’d sent enough fighters to ensure a victory, but not a single one had returned.  His mind was beginning to wonder if he’d sent them all to their deaths.  If they had been repelled by the village, or by the traitors they sought, they’d have come back the way they’d gone.  There would be fewer of them, but they all knew how to travel without being noticed.  Someone had to come back.  The idea of the entire force being killed was impossible, or at least it had seemed so when they’d left.  Now it had been more than 15 days, and each passing day made the hope of someone returning diminish that much more.

The Order wasn’t in any immediate danger.  There were still more than a hundred fighters in the villages they’d taken, and many more younger brothers and sisters who were too young to send out, but who would fight if they were attacked.  They’d had plenty of births, and within fifteen years, they would have rebuilt their strength.  And they’d have plenty to eat, as well, he thought with a smile.  The villages the Order now occupied had been very productive under their new leadership.  They’d already stocked enough food to last through the winter, and three merchant caravans had unsuspectingly rolled right into their waiting arms, bringing many supplies and even a few animals.  The Order was eating very well these days, and learning more about farming and building every day.

But what would his next step be? The assault on Silverlake must have been a failure.  If it had succeeded, he’d have heard news by now, one way or the other.  And because of that failure, he felt very strongly that he should focus the Order on growing and strengthening themselves for the time being.  They needed more members, they needed to give time for the younger brothers and sisters to mature and strengthen.  He took a deep breath, then turned toward where his horse was grazing.  He had just mounted when motion at the opening of the entrance corridor drew his attention back to it.

Something had pushed a half-dozen or so of the Turned out into the light.  They scrambled to get back inside, pushing against those behind them.  The Turned worked against each other as much as anything else, Cheszalt knew.  At night, the swarm that advanced on a person would push those in front right into a flame weapon’s path.  It was as if they didn’t realize the location of the others, or didn’t care.  Each did everything they could to get close to a source of food, or away from a source of heat.  In this case, those farther down the entrance corridor were trying to get as close to Cheszalt as they could without stepping into the light, and because of this, those that had been bumped out into the sun could not push back into their place.  They would fight it through the day, perhaps finding a slightly cooler place as the sun moved shadows around the entrance.  They’d be weaker for a while, perhaps decay a little faster.  A moment later, a few more were forced out into the light.  This aroused his curiosity… something in there was making its way out.

One of the Turned then stepped out into the sunlight.  It was one of his sisters, he thought, dressed in a black training uniform- distinguished from their usual clothing by a tunic with sleeves that ended at the elbow, instead of flowing down over the wrists.  But instead of being forced forward into the sunlight, this one stepped out herself.  Then she continued striding outward, faster than he’d ever seen the Turned move, past the old gate and out into the open.

The hood was over her head.  Black hair mixed with grey peeked out around the edges, but was mostly contained out of sight.  The short sleeves and loose-fitting pants made most of her figure difficult to determine, but he could tell that she was excessively muscular, even at a distance of 40 meters or so.  As she came closer, he could see more clearly.  Her forearms had to be as large as his own lower legs, and the upper arm muscles that showed from under the edges of her sleeves were more powerful than any he’d seen before, either on a man or a woman.  The Order demanded its members be in excellent physical shape, and rewarded those who were muscular, but this woman was beyond anything he’d seen before.

She approached to a distance of 5 meters, then stopped.  Cheszalt recognized her then, but just barely.  The structure of her face had not changed much, even if her skin was paler now, losing the tan it had held before.  The eyes burned back at him, but for some reason he could tell she did not intend to attack him.  He’d faced her once before, in the tournament.  He’d lost that fight, but that had been many years ago.  Up close, he could see that her impossibly powerful figure was a result of three things.

First, she was one of the Immune.  That much was obvious; her eyes had turned completely red.  Whatever the infection did to most people, it had turned her body into a muscular powerhouse the likes of which a normal human simply could not achieve.

Second, she was a member of the Order.  The strength exercises that he’d grown up doing daily had built this, he decided.  And even among the Order, this woman was a powerful exception even before the Turned had over-run the Great Rock.  She was one of the few people in history to be named Champion of the Order three times.  Most of his brothers and sisters had believed that when her turn came to enter the tournament again, she would have won her fourth.

The last reason for her size and power was evident behind her eyes.  She had become a woman possessed by something, a rage or vengeance that burned inside her and drove her to become what stood before him.  That expression bore him no malice, but somewhere out there, someone was marked for revenge from this being.  That someone is in grave danger, he decided.

“Alexia,” he said, barely louder than a whisper.

“Hello, brother,” she replied, speaking at the same volume.  “Is the Order safe with you?”

He nodded.  “We’ve made our new home in Starhill.  Northwest of us.  There are few of us, but we are safe, and can rebuild our strength from there.”

“That isn’t what I meant,” she replied.  “I’ve been watching you all, and many other people as well.  But is the Order safe?”

The meaning there was clear- he was the last of the five councilors, and it was his responsibility to carry on every tradition of the Order.  Having other officers among the older brothers and sisters back at Starhill was only part of it- he needed to teach some of them to be new councilors, to prepare them for the day when he would not be there to lead them.  And he realized the question was a gentle rebuke, as well- he had neglected this part of his duty, and Alexia had noticed.  She was his elder on the council before, and was not out of line in pointing this out.  “I understand, sister.  Our immediate survival has occupied much of my time.”

“You have done as well as could be hoped.  I am proud to know you have found a new place on your own, and a new path.”  She paused, looking off to the East.  “There will be a better place for you soon.  You will know the opportunity when it comes to you.”  Then her face swung back toward him, her eyes locking on his.  “But you must not come this way again.  I cannot allow anyone else to see me like this.”

Cheszalt nodded.  “I wish you could return to us, sister.  It would renew our courage to see you again.  But I understand.”

She nodded.  “The Creator has chosen a different path for me now… and while it is not the one I hoped for, it is not my place to contest His will.”

He paused before speaking, but he knew it had to be said.  “We found the traitors who nearly destroyed us last fall.  They’re in Silverlake.  I sent a group to bring them home, but haven’t heard from them.”

Alexia’s eyes didn’t change their expression in the slightest.  “Those few are not the traitors.  They’ve only been led astray.  There is only one responsible for what happened to us.  Don’t go looking for him, Cheszalt.  Leave him to me.  Go, now.”  She turned back toward the old gate, and slowly walked away from him.

Cheszalt turned his horse, and spurred it back towards Carved Rock, where he had come from.  He’d been convinced, up until that point, that it was Svetlana who had caused the Turned to over-run the compound at Great Rock.  His mind repeated one of her words, all the way back to Starhill.

Him?

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