The Believers – Chapter 4

The village of Starhill had changed completely since they’d arrived. A new perimeter had been built- this one almost entirely of large logs, freshly cut from the edge of the surrounding forest.  Those villagers that had survived to this point thought that was foolish- any use of flame weapons would destroy their main defense against the Turned.  But the old fence still stood, and their old homes stood inside.  The new wall had about tripled the size of the village itself, and already there stood many new buildings- mostly living quarters of some kind, built for their… conquerors.  There really wasn’t any better word for them.  Two of the buildings had intrigued the villagers; one was apparently dedicated to educating the members of this- cult, some said the word was- while the other was used only for combat training.  These invaders spent a lot of time learning- and had taken many of the village children into their teaching program- but spent an average of six hours out of every day learning how to fight.  And not against the Turned, but against other people.

The looks these people gave them were frightening.  There was something in the eyes of all these dark-clad warriors, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on it.  It wasn’t so much of a condescending look, and it certainly wasn’t hatred- which was hard to explain away, since they’d killed over a third of the village population when they’d attacked.  One of the villagers described it as a sort of resigned pity, as if the villagers were doomed long ago, and had only to wait for that doom to come for them.

They had been allowed to keep their homes, which surprised them.  But the increase in work these invaders had demanded of them was brutal.  Life had been hard enough before, but now they had just enough time in the day to eat their meals.  At night they were too sore from work to do anything but sleep.

Within a week, more workers had been brought from somewhere else- slaves, perhaps, would have been a better word.  They were joined in their work in the fields, clearing more of the forest and planting more crops, and erecting more buildings.

One day, most of the warriors quite suddenly disappeared.  It took the villagers by surprise to awaken and find that, while there were still some there to keep an eye on the place, there was an eerie quiet.  Two days later, they returned- bringing even more people back to work the fields.  It didn’t take long for word to spread- they had conquered Carved Rock, and brought the survivors here to be slaves as well.

One upshot that had been noticed was that there was more food to be had.  No one had been starving before, but while the imposed order had made them into slaves, they also were given more to eat than they could remember.  Since the invasion, not a single person had been denied food they’d asked for.  They even had wine to drink at the end of the day.

There were no uprisings.  Everyone who had the skill, tools, or will to fight had been killed in the first attack, and those who remained had no spine to resist.  The warriors who watched over them carried swords, and had demonstrated their skill with them the morning they’d arrived.  Seeing them practice their skills- for hours a day, every day- did as much to convince anyone that fighting back was a foolish action.

Ilyana was one of those who was watching.  She cast her critical eye more on the construction than on the people working, but the villagers could not tell the difference.  Even at a young 16 years, she was fearsome in her demeanor.  She also often led the combat exercises that so impressed the workers who stole glances in her direction.

That had been her idea.  The problem of finding space in the village for so many to practice their arts, as well as keeping control over the workers, had both been solved by her concept of having the practice groups work in patches of the fields, spread evenly around the village.  If anyone had organized a revolt, the nearby practice groups would converge and pacify the uprising slaves.

It was also her idea that they came here in the first place, she thought proudly.  While Tasia had scouted the villages in the area, and selected this one to be the first, and while Cygna had set up a brilliant tactical attack, it had been her thought to conquer a village instead of just destroying it, or building their own somewhere else.  Someone else would have thought of it eventually, she knew, but she had spoken up first.  It had earned her the respect of the only remaining councilor of her order, Cheszalt, and now she was one of his trusted advisors, despite her age.

But then again, there wasn’t enough of the Order left for anyone to discriminate based on age.  There had been more than a thousand brothers and sisters before the Great Rock had been over-run by the Turned.  Now there were less than 250.

Her thoughts continued to return to that night.  She was sure that most of the Order had the same sort of thoughts she did – it had been a terrifying night altogether.  But more so for her, having been trapped outside of the compound, out in the open, and barely climbing a tree in time to get clear of the grasping hands of the Turned.  They had swarmed around her and the others that had tried to escape, trapping them in the clearing they had thought would be safe.  It should have taken time for the Turned to locate them, to smell them, and to move the long distance from the Great Rock to the mouth of the tunnel.  Instead, the Turned had been out in the forest, waiting for them just outside the tunnel’s end.  This had been debated by everyone in the Order dozens of times, and no one had come up with a reason.

Ilyana knew that reason, but had rarely spoken of it.  From her perch in that tree, she had watched the Turned fall upon and devour everyone that had come out of the tunnel.  Some had made it back inside, but then they had been trapped underground between the swarm at the tunnel’s exit, and the even greater swarm that had flowed through the corridors of the Compound.  She had watched them reach up toward her, all through the night, then shamble away as the sun began to rise.  And then she had watched several of her elder brothers and sisters climb out of a tree just across the clearing, and disappear into the woods, heading away from the Great Rock.

That was what had led the Turned to the mouth of the tunnel- people in the trees just outside the escape tunnel’s mouth.  The Turned had clustered around the base of that tree, trying in vain to reach the living flesh that was just out of their reach. When more living people had appeared out of the ground behind them, they merely turned around.  She didn’t know how the Turned had broken into the Great Rock, but she knew that it had been her own brothers and sisters who had set the ambush that nearly killed her.

Saia had been there.  The one woman Ilyana would trust above all other things had been part of the ambush- had taken action to slaughter the Order.  There had to be a reason.

So few of the people in the Order even know who their birth-mother is.  The entire Order was a family; elders helping to raise and train the young, everyone helping protect everyone.  There was no need for the brothers and sisters to know whom had carried them, or who their blood-ties were.  But Saia had kept a special eye on Ilyana for as long as the young woman could remember, and when she had been ten years, Saia had told her why.  They were blood sisters as well.  The Order discouraged that sort of bond, so it had been kept a close secret by the two of them ever since.

It was the only reason Ilyana had not told anyone what she’d seen that morning.  She knew Saia would have a cause, a reason for her actions, and she needed to know why her blood sister had tried to destroy their extended family – and thrown away Ilyana’s life with the rest of them.

Cheszalt was near the West gate when she wandered back that direction.  He was listening to a report, and as she approached, she caught the last of it.

“… were all dead, and had been for a while.  If they left here first thing after sunrise, which they did,” Tasia said.  “Then they must have been killed not long after they got back to the Great Rock.  But they were close to the front gates, not the side where our ropes and ladders were.”

“Bandits, you think?” Cheszalt asked.  “I wouldn’t think they’d come so close to our old home.  Historically, we’ve done a fairly good job of chasing them all off.”

Tasia shook her head.  “I don’t think it was bandits, master.  They were beaten to death by someone bare-handed.  Not a single weapon mark we could find.  Broken bones, heavy bruises- all but one had their necks broken.  These weren’t weak fighters, but it looks like someone bested them with our own art.  Whoever it was, they were much stronger than I am, Master.  One of them had an impact on his chest that had broken two ribs inward.  It looked like he’d been kicked by a horse.”

Cheszalt’s eyes looked off into the distance.  “The only person I’ve heard of who could do that was an old combat master of mine, and she’s long dead.  Andrissa- she’s one of three people who have ever won the Tournament three times in their life.  Councilor Alexia is the only one I’ve ever seen come close to that woman’s power.”

Ilyana had reached the conversation by that point.  “I had heard Councilor Alexia was planning to enter the Tournament again this year, and possibly win a fourth time.”

“It’s true,” Cheszalt said, nodding.  He grimaced.  “Perhaps, once we’re secure here, we can hold the Tournament again.”  The Order held a bare-hand fighting tournament every year, as a test for its members and a reward for the one named the Champion of the Order.  Just reaching the semi-finals was a huge honor, as almost everyone in the Order would enter.  A Champion of the Order was required to wait ten years before re-entering, and very few had won the tournament even once, let alone twice.  Those who won 3 were legends in their own lifetimes.  No one had ever won a fourth.

“Well,” Chesalt turned back to Tasia, “we’ve gotten all of the birth-mothers moved here now, yes?”

She nodded.  “To my knowledge, there is little left for us to retrieve from the old Compound, master.  We’ve completed our move here.”

“Good.  Good work.  Pass on my thanks to everyone.  It’s been a difficult time for the Order, but as always, we’ve made it through, and we will be stronger for the challenge.  Tasia, Ilyana,” he looked at each of them in turn, “let my other advisors know I wish to meet with them this evening.  You will need to send a messenger to Carved Rock, and most likely Tower Hill as well, to get word to everyone.”

*****

Darrick took off his helmet after the last of the Turned had vanished into the woods. Beside him, his daughter Daniella breathed a sigh of relief.  It had been her first night standing guard with him, something he’d been sure would happen from the day she’d been born, and had looked forward to since she’d started training.  He’d never been more proud than when she’d finished her training, even if she’d had to wait for two months before the village could afford the steel for her armor.  He wasn’t an old man, but it made him feel better knowing the village would be safe with her after he was gone.  He’d trained a lot of people in his time, but hadn’t seen anyone so talented with a sword since he was training in Carter’s Hill.

She took her helmet off, holding it in one hand as she turned away from the sunrise.  Behind the two of them, and across the village, the gates were opening and a dozen or so people were going out to finish working on the new wall.  The last shipment of blocks had arrived the week before, and now they were all in place.  They were braced against the Turned, for now- the cement that held the blocks together needed time to strengthen, they’d been told, and until then the Turned might still be able to beat it down.  Today they’d put the new doors in place at the two gates, and in another few days the wall would be strong enough to stand on it’s own.

The old perimeter fence was in a rough bean-shape as it encircled the village, but the new wall had been built mostly square- the blocks were easier to fit together in such way.  Once the old fence was gone, the village would have grown slightly.  Spaced evenly along the flat faces of the new wall were square towers, to keep the long sections of wall from bowing inwards, and atop these were small platforms covered with a wooden roof.  Darrick looked forward to not having to stand out unprotected in the rain.

But the other thing he’d noticed was how quiet it had been.  The two gates were wide open without their doors, and the Turned had streamed right in through them to beat their decaying hands on the old steel fence.  But the majority of them had been stopped by the wall, and they had beaten against that instead.  While the rattling of the steel fence had still been there, he could hear hardly anything from the hands hitting the cement blocks.  Once the two gates were complete, the rattling sound would be gone.  Soon, he’d feel as safe as he had in the big city.  Safer, even, since he didn’t have to worry about his own fellow soldiers coming for him in the middle of the night.  This village was far enough from Carter’s Hill that he didn’t worry about them coming here- at least not over a petty rivalry that had ended in great embarrassment for the other soldier involved.  Hearing that the nearby village of Riverbend had been turned into a vassal of Carter’s Hill didn’t make him happy, but for the present he felt safe.

The two teams of men set to work erecting the new doors immediately.  It had been all prepared the afternoon before, and after quickly checking to make sure the Turned hadn’t broken anything important, they began the task of hanging the doors. It would take them the better part of the morning to finish.

These doors would swing outward.  One of the village councilors had a number of books about history, and had shared many old illustrations of castles and fortresses that had been built hundreds of years earlier.  Many parts of the new wall were based on those old designs.  No need to learn all those design lessons over, the man had said.  It made sense to Darrick.  But he’d noticed that the old castles always had gates that swung inward, and had pointed this out.  But the reason for that, apparently, was the hinges of the door; for the door to swing out, the hinges had to be on the outside, and an attacker could possibly destroy the hinges and take the doors off.  With the hinges inside, he’d been told, the attacker couldn’t get to them.  In their case, however, the Turned were not industrious enough to recognize the hinges and try to destroy them.  They would only press on the door.  And if it swung outward, the reasoning went, they could be made to NOT swing inward at all.  The Turned could push against the door all they wanted, but unless the door itself failed, they wouldn’t get through.

As long as they aren’t bright enough to try pulling on the door…

His thoughts were snapped back to the present by his daughter’s shout.  Her eyes were wide, and she pointed off to the north.  Across the fields, a line of horsemen were galloping across the fields.  There were at least 20 of them.  They moved through the crops without caution or care, closing on the village at high speed.  The craftsman had just finished hanging the doors, and swung them shut hastily.  The bolts were all prepared, and were dropped into place.  The walking platform that would allow Derrick to see over the wall were only partially completed, but he climbed up to one of the finished sections to watch the horsemen approach.

They stopped, 15 meters away from the wall, and one of them gave a shout.  The men fanned out, surrounding the cement block wall, then began to pull large iron hooks from their saddles.  They had ropes on the ends, and they threw these over the tops of the walls, hooking onto the newly-set blocks.  Derrick realized just too late what they were doing.  He nearly leapt off the platform, shouting orders to the other fighters that had assembled, and ordered the gates be opened.

The mounted attackers- that had to be their intention, Derrick thought- looped the ropes around the horns of their saddles, then spurred their horses backward, away from the wall.  In some places, the blocks had cured enough to hold, but in a dozen or so places, the cement mortar gave way, and large sections of the walls came down in a heap, blocks scattering as they hit the ground.  One of them had hooked on to the bracing, and pulled down almost the entire wall section between two of the towers – a 6 meter long section.

Darrick charged at the nearest of them, leaping into the air and preparing a swing of his axe.  The attackers all wore rough riding clothes, mostly dirty cloth and leather, but something in Darrick’s mind had convinced him they wore armor underneath.  They had helmets on, so it made sense.  He adjusted his strike accordingly.  He was proved right when his weapon made the distinctive sound of metal scraping metal, but because he’d anticipated it, the edge drove into the rider’s left shoulder instead of glancing off harmlessly.  The two men fell to the ground on the other side of the horse, and Darrick was on his feet before the other had recovered from the fall.  He drove the axe down between the man’s helmet and chest-plate, breaking through the chain aventail that protected the throat.  Then he straightened just in time to feel a heavy impact on his back.  His armor had absorbed most of the blow, but he could tell something had been injured.  When he tried to rise, the muscles of his back screamed.

One of the attackers had dismounted nearby, and walked toward him, a long sword in hand.  Blood marked the blade, and Darrick had no doubts whose blood it was.  If he could get to his feet, he could still fight, but his back muscles wouldn’t- couldn’t- support him.

The other fighter stopped, and the helmet cocked to one side as the man appraised Darrick.  He then looked around to the other mounted attackers, then took another few steps forward, loosening the chin-strap of his helmet as he approached.  When he lifted it off his head, Darrick’s breath caught.

“Tsk, tsk,” he said, looking down.  “Darrick, I always told you that you were too focused.  You should have been watching your back better.  Once again, you’ve failed.”

Darrick’s teeth clenched.  “Andrei, you could never best me without hitting me in the back.  And now you’ll never know how much better a man I am.  You’ll always know you could never beat me toe-to-toe.”

Andrei smirked.  The scar across his right eye stretched slightly.  “I don’t need to beat you toe-to-toe.  I never did.  I just had to beat you.  And now I have.  And speaking of facing each other, you could never face me over Charlotte anyway.  She’d have been better off with me- I’m a Captain now.  Maybe she’ll come back with me, instead of living out here in the rough.”

“She’s dead.” Darrick hissed the words.  “She’s been dead for five years.”  And Darrick cursed himself for believing he’d be safe from this maniac’s revenge.

Andrei sighed.  “That’s too bad.  Well, you’ll be seeing her again in just a moment.”

Darrick tried hard to turn his head back toward the gate, where the other defenders were vainly fighting to keep the attackers from entering the village.  Seven of his people were down, and now the armored defenders that were left were outnumbered.  He caught sight of his daughter, but couldn’t hear her screaming at him.  She was the last thing he saw.

*****

She entered the room slowly, eyes tracing the shadows in the corners. The torch she held chased the walking dead away from her, but the room was large enough to offer plenty of places for darkness to stay out of the torchlight’s reach.  It still amazed her that there had been so little damage, but then again, the Turned weren’t interested in anything but those who had lived here.  Here and there she’d run across one of the walking dead dressed in loose-fitting black.  She’d choked back tears the first dozen times, but now she’d become numbed to it.  As before, they had completely ignored her.  She pushed them out of the way when she needed, and they wouldn’t resist.  They would stumble for a moment, regain their footing, and then stand still once more.

The main training hall had been a mess when she’d first come back, but now she’d forced out the Turned who had lingered inside.  Blood still pooled in places, but she avoided these.  The room had been designed for hundreds of people to exercise and practice.  It was easy to find a clear space for just one.

The taste still filled her mouth.  It hadn’t been much more than an hour since, and she could still see their faces when her eyes closed.  She hadn’t wept for them this time, but that knowledge didn’t make her any more comfortable.  Did it mean that she was accepting the role the Creator had given her?  Or was she turning into a monster, a killing machine that didn’t feel the terrible shock of the end of a life?

Or was it both?  Was it the Creator’s will that she become a monster?  Did he have need of one such as her?

He had need of other such monsters, she knew.  That was what the Turned were- a supernatural army of mindless killers driven by hunger to destroy every living human they could reach.  And each time a human fell, another of the Turned arose.

The only thing she could do to banish such thoughts and feelings was to exercise and practice.  Her breathing altered, and she stood perfectly straight, letting her body align itself before she started.  Her footing changed, anchoring her to the floor instead of just resting on top of it.

The exercises were such that getting better at them didn’t mean they got easier- it meant that you could do them more intensely, more powerfully.  The longer you practiced them, and the stronger you got, the more stress you could put on your muscles and the better your workout was.  She had been following this routine, with subtle variations, since she was six, and it showed- her body was lean, muscular, and very strong.

Since the night she had changed, she’d known that things were going to be different.  She was happy to know that her face had not changed much, relieved to know that she was not going to rot the way the Turned did.  Her skin was still clear- although it had darkened somewhat, perhaps from being outside more.  Her eyes had definitely changed, but the biggest change had been in her skeletal muscle.  Her change, combined with her exercises, had unleashed something inside her.  Her body had grown more muscular than she’d thought possible, to the point of being frightening.  She had been morbidly pleased by the change, and knew what others would think upon seeing her- she had confirmed it earlier that morning.  Instead of the loose clothing, she’d worn shorts and a sleeveless shirt.  It had shocked those people to see her, scared them so badly they’d been unable to put up a fight.  She had been intimidating before.  Now she had moved beyond frightening, and become the stuff of a nightmare.  Not that her victims would have had any hope, either way.  The Turned showed their monstrosity with their decay.  Hers would show through in her own way.

She continued her exercises long after she should have been exhausted.  She smiled at the thought that she hadn’t had this much time to exercise since the last time she’d entered the tournament.  She’d never enter again, but she could train herself as if she was.  It would make her task easier.  Tonight would be different, would be something new.  She had a long way to travel.

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