The Believers – Chapter 5

The old man was back to doing what he loved most, Dresten saw. He led a group of 12 teen-agers through a series of movements.  Idzac had never complained once about their new-found lives, but had mentioned a few times his love of teaching young people their first steps of the fighting arts.  He’d missed it.  The young students were much improved today, even though they’d only just started a few days earlier.  If they could keep this up, they’d be powerful fighters.

The older warriors had been reluctant to follow Dresten through his lessons at first, and many of the children had not been allowed the extra time to practice and study with them.  It seemed that the whole village had all been slow to believe that there was a benefit to their new guests.   Well, they had been at first, Dresten remembered with a smile.  It had taken them seeing Idzac demonstrate his skill on Bryan, their fight-master, before the fighters really began listening and putting in effort.  But now they were listening, and now they had a chance.  Once they understood that Dresten and his friends were not trying to take the place of their instructor, they were much more friendly.  He’d had to remind them a few times that he and his friends had little experience fighting the Turned, just as these villagers had little experience fighting the living.  It was the balance between the two that Dresten now sought.

It was a rather beautiful location, he thought.  It was one of the few villages that was near a large body of water – a lake, in this case.  The water caught the light from both moon and sun, and the people had named the place Silverlake after it.  The shape of the lake was oblong, and the village was built 30 meters from the southern tip, where a small river flowed past the village and off into the forests beyond.  The homes were the same as he had seen elsewhere- blockhouses built of logs, with perhaps 2 or 3 walls inside to separate eating and sleeping areas.  A handful of houses were larger, and three had been built with a second level instead of a loft.  The village was prosperous, being one of the only sources for fish that the gypsies knew of.  It wasn’t something that people elsewhere absolutely couldn’t live without, but it had turned into a bit of a luxury due to it’s scarity.  The gypsy clans would rarely miss a stop here.  The lake also presented a threat, though; the deep water was where the Turned would hide during the day.  No one ever swam there, and occasionally a fisherman would feel too strong a tug on his string or his net.  They would let go every time- there was no reason to tempt fate.

Dresten was at the gate- the old gate, built into the fence perimeter- watching the builders finish for the afternoon.  They had worked for nearly ten hours, and had only stopped to eat a few times.  The new cement block wall sections had been braced.  The part of the new wall that had been built the previous night had held against the Turned, even if they had been able to move around it to get to the steel fences.  It was strong enough to last.  The workers had a few more hours before sundown, but they’d made a lot of progress that day.

He hadn’t told the others about Svetlana’s visit yet.  They’d hold a meeting tonight, and he’d bring it up then.  Her advice was easily taken- they had planned on staying away from Starhill, heading further east, even before Svetlana had recommended it.  But she had asked them to move much farther east- he didn’t like the idea of getting too close to Carter’s Hill, but that seemed to be precisely what she had in mind.

She had been like a visiting spirit.  He hadn’t asked her how she’d gotten inside the village after dark, without being spotted by the defenders.  She’d spoken quickly, bringing news of the Order invading a group of villages and enslaving the residents that survived.  Then she had left, as quickly and quietly as she’d come.

The defenders, he’d noticed, were changing their guard earlier than usual.  That was good- he and Saia had advised that.  If the Order ever sent a group to attack, they’d hit just before the Turned began to move.  Many villages changed their guard shift just as dark was falling, to make sure they were fresh when the Turned hit the perimeter.  But that meant they would be unprepared at precisely the time the Order would try to attack.  Now, this village was changing it’s guard hours before dusk, and would do so again just after nightfall.  Dresten watched a number of the armored guards stand down, and begin stripping off their armor.  It had been a hot day, and almost every one of them poured cups of water over their heads.  Their arming clothes were no doubt drenched anyway.

Saia joined him near the gate.  She seemed pleased with herself, and for good reason- her session with the instructor and the older defenders had gone very well.  They were learning fast.  Old as they might be, they were still open-minded about defending the village.  Not all villages were like that, and it was rewarding to have students who wanted to learn.

“You’ve been awful quiet today,” she observed.  “Not that you talk excessively any other day.”  She elbowed him playfully.

He smiled for a moment, then looked off toward the treeline.  “Svetlana visited me last night,” he said, quietly and evenly.  Her eyes widened for a moment.  “I’ll share it when we meet later on this evening, but the short version is that the Order has captured a half-dozen villages around Starhill, and she recommended we avoid that area.”

She nodded, then cast him a sideward smirk.  “You’re still in love with her, aren’t you?”

He shrugged.  “No reason to hide it now, I suppose.  It isn’t the greatest rule I’ve violated lately.”  He chuckled.  “It’s probably just an infatuation.  We were assigned on a team for too long.  There was little chance of us being together very much when we were part of the Order, and I’m sure that chance is zero now.”  He sighed, long and slow.  “So much the better, I suppose.”

Something broke through the treeline to the west, not far from the road.  He squinted for a moment, and it got Saia’s attention.  Her eyes were better than his.

“Someone mounted.  Probably armored, I can see something reflecting the light.  There’s more than one… maybe five.  No, there are more coming through the trees.”  She looked for another moment, then clapped his shoulder.  “I think you should alert the guards coming on duty to hurry up and get armed.  I’ll let you know more as I see it.”

Dresten nodded, then turned suddenly.  “Idzac!  Odyna!  Griegel!  Find the others and bring them here.”  The three stopped what they were doing, and scattered about the village.  Idzac’s class dispersed in confusion, many of the kids approaching the gate.  Dresten’s shout had alerted all the guards, both those finishing their watch and those just starting.  All were about half-armed, and began scrambling with the buckles and clasps that held their armor in place.  He approached them first.  “You fighters who are just coming off of watch, help the others get armed.  You’ve been on watch for hours- better to get the fresh fighters ready quicker.”  It would still take them several minutes to prepare.

Within another 60 seconds, though, his entire group was assembled at the gate.  Griegel and Odyna each had a heavy, long, black leather satchel slung over one shoulder.  They’d thought to bring the polearms out, he noted with approval.  Saia approached the group, urgency in her eyes.

“There’s 20 of them, all mounted, heavy armor.  They’re not from the Order.  I can’t tell where they’re from, so there’s no telling what they’ll do.”

Dresten nodded.  He opened one of the bags, while Odyna opened hers.  The group collectively began to assemble the three-piece weapons.  “Whether they’re here to attack the wall, or the people, the guards here won’t be ready to fight until it’s all over.  We’re going to get out in front and give these people time to prepare.  Get them off the horses, and their advantage is gone.  And remember, whoever these people are, they probably didn’t bargain on having us here.  Don’t do anything fancy, but fight in the old ways.  If they’re bandits, they most likely have no idea what they’re up against.  And… try not to harm the horses,” he added with a smile.  Being in the wild had taught him frugality.  He locked the blade in place at the end of his polearm with a loud click, then dashed out through the gate.  The others followed him, and began to form a line outside the incomplete cement block wall.  He turned and shouted at the people near the gate, “Close it, and don’t open it until your fighters are ready to come out!”  Bryan was there, out of armor, and he nodded.  There was a new form of respect there, Dresten saw.  Coming to the village to teach them how to fight was one thing, but now these guests were putting themselves in harm’s way for the village.

The men on the horses galloped hard across the fields.  They ignored the cleared paths, vaulting the fences where they needed to, and holding their line as they approached.  They took only a few minutes to cross the three-kilometer distance.  When they were 50 meters out, the leader reined his horse to a halt.  He had expected resistance, but these people looked like no fighters he’d encountered before.  He shouted a command at his men, who fanned out to form a line across from the ten who were on foot.

Dresten and his people had deliberately left plenty of space between them.  They’d practiced this scenario many times at the Great Rock.  If they had grouped together, the twenty horsemen may try to just ride them down, whether they had polearms or not.  Both sides would be hurt grievously, but his side would most likely come out ahead.  Spaced apart like this, however, it became ten isolated fights, two-on-one encounters.  In that situation, he knew his friends far outmatched their opponents.  It may not seem like it from horseback, but a warrior with a spear, properly trained and set to receive a charge, often has the advantage over a mounted fighter.  All they had to do was make these attackers believe that their charge would succeed.

Apparently they did.  Another shout, and half of the line of horses was spurred forward.  The others, including the leader, stayed back to watch.  They drew swords, and made to swing at the defenders as they rode past.  Almost as one, the polearms swung upward, their curves turned upward to present the sharp point directly to the mounted fighters’ waistlines.  Seven of them took the blades right through their midsections- Odyna’s being run through completely.  Dresten, at the last moment, had dodged around the other side of the horse’s charge, on the warrior’s left, making it difficult to line up the intended two-handed swing without hitting the horse’s head.  Then the point of Dresten’s blade had come up, catching on the rolled edge of the chest-plate.  It didn’t penetrate the steel, but the shock of the impact knocked him sideward, twisting him off his mount.

Idzac’s move was the most impressive.  He, too, ducked around the horse’s path, but leaped into the air, spinning backward as he did so.  The back end of their polearms were fitted with a heavy, fist-size iron ring, and Idzac drove this ring right into the face-plate of the fighter who had charged him.  The man was laid out on his back.  Idzac landed gracefully, strode over to the unconscious fighter, then deftly snaked the blade of his weapon under the chain aventail and cut through the chin-straps holding the helmet in place.  He kicked the helmet away, then did the same with the sword that had landed amongst the young bean plants.

The leader shouted another order, and the other half of the attacking force charged.  Those two who had survived the first charge wheeled their horses around, preparing to come back, but another shout from their leader convinced them to move in on the village and its new cement block wall.

Most of the polearms had been recovered, and pointed at the next charge.  Having seen what happened to their friends, the next wave of attackers slowed, and many dismounted to fight on even ground.  This is even better, Dresten thought, smiling as one of the fighters approached him.  He held the blade out before him, making it difficult for the other to get close enough to use his sword.  After a few useless swings, Dresten had seen his opportunity, and taken it.  The steel chest-plate came open easily, and a quick jerk of the weapon in the right direction opened the attacker’s chest along with it.

Saia had moved back to deal with the two who approached the new wall.  They had sheathed their swords, and drawn large iron hooks tied to long ropes.  One was preparing to throw his over the wall when she leaped onto his horse behind him.  A moment later, she used two small knives to sever the leather straps that held the chest- and back-plates together.  The space that opened between them was just wide enough for the blades to strike again.  The attacking fighter had just enough time to drop his hook before the blades entered his lungs.  Saia slid sideward off the horse just before he did the same.  The other attacker had caught sight of her, and had dropped his hook, trying to get his sword back out before she reached him.  She ducked his swing, then popped up and drove one of her blades right down into his thigh.  He cried out, nearly dropping the sword, but she was on the horse behind him before he knew it.  She pushed her hand up under his aventail, cutting the chin-straps and pulling the helm off.  With another fluid movement, she drove the blade into the side of his neck.

Odyna had just freed her polearm from the waist of the man who’d charged her, when she saw Angora hit.  It wasn’t bad- just a cut on the thigh- but her sister was injured, and the next attack would be to kill.  Odyna shouted as she ran the distance between them, getting the attacker’s attention, then swung her polearm laterally.  Angora fell to the ground and rolled aside.  Odyna’s swing hadn’t been meant to hit, and the attacker deflected it with his sword.  But the shock of the hit made him lose his balance, and his sword was high.  He tried to recover in time, but Odyna continued charging at him, dropping the polearm instead of bringing it back for another attack.  She leaped just as she reached him, planting her foot squarely in the chest-plate.  The attacker didn’t fall, but staggered backward.  Odyna’s sword was out before she hit the ground.  Again, she spun, but this time her kick went low, hooking the back of the attacker’s knee.  He toppled backward, and while he rolled out of the way before Odyna’s blade swung down at him, he also rolled right into Angora’s hands.  She put the knee of her bad leg down on his sword-arm, and drove her knife through the gap between the chest-plate and the spaulder that covered his shoulder.  The inward angle put it through the top of the man’s lung.  She repeated the thrust on his other side.  The armor that these fighters wore was excellent protection against the Turned.  In this fight, though, it was little use.

Idzac had knocked two men off their horses, and they attacked him from either side.  He had discarded his polearm by this point, and fought the two men bare-handed.  The battle had died down by this point, and Dresten could afford to watch.  The only one who had taken a wound was Angora, and Odyna was caring for her.

Dresten shook his head as he watched the two armored attackers close in, knowing few people but Idzac would have the skill to pull this off.  But on the other hand, the mental effect could not be topped; an unarmed old man taking on two armored fighters with longswords, and not just defeating them, but embarrassing them.

They both swung at him, over and over, but he continued to move in such way that they had more chance of hitting each other than the old man.  They just could not pin him down.  It made it all the more frustrating that he had his hands clasped in front of him, and hidden in the overlarge sleeves of his tunic.  He hadn’t bothered to attack yet, because he knew he didn’t need to.

Then, suddenly, the old man changed his tactics.  Instead of continuing to dodge, he sidestepped a badly over-extended thrust from one of them, and his hands came apart in a blur.  One snaked around the sword arm, the other went forward and snaked around the attacker’s neck.  Even in armor, there were positions you could put a person that would cause great discomfort, and this was one of them; When Idzac stopped moving, he had the man’s sword-arm locked straight out to the side, and his head trapped at Idzac’s side in an upside-down headlock.  The man was bent over backwards, unable to regain his balance or straighten up.

Being a combat instructor sometimes brings with it an odd habit, and Idzac had picked it up.  When fighting people- whether for practice, or tournaments, or a fight to the death- when the opponent makes a mistake, and gives over the advantage, you take it… but once you have them trapped, you give them just a moment to think about their mistake before you finish the fight.  Idzac did precisely this.  He held the man for just a moment, looking over his shoulder and through the helmet’s oculars, staring the man in the eyes.  Then Idzac dropped to one knee, placing that knee underneath the attacker’s upper back and letting gravity do its work.  When the backplate hit Idzac’s knee, the shock of the impact was concentrated on the attacker’s neck bones.  Even with the padded arming clothes, the motion of the bones sheared the spinal cord instantly.  Idzac released him, but he was dead before he hit the ground.

The remaining attacker lunged forward a moment later, but he was far too slow.  Idzac dodged three more wild swings before catching the sword arm on a back-swing.  He twisted the elbow upside-down, then drove his own elbow right down onto the steel plate protecting the joint.  The armor was meant to stop the bites and scratches of the Turned, but didn’t even slow down the force from Idzac’s strike.  The padding of the arming coat absorbed some of the shock, but not nearly enough.  The elbow joint shattered, and the hand released the sword.  Idzac crouched for just a moment before leaping into the air, directing the heel of a powerful spinning kick into the side of the fighter’s helmet.  The head snapped violently from the impact; the mass and inertia of the helmet pushed the bones in the man’s neck far beyond its natural range of motion.  When he fell, his head was almost turned around backward.

He had been the last, besides the one that had been shouting orders.  This officer was now alone, and on the verge of panic.  The gates of the village had opened a moment earlier, and the armored defenders were streaming out to stand beside the black-clad warriors who had defeated his entire group.  He’d had experienced, armored fighters and outnumbered these people two to one, and they had only inflicted one wound.  He turned his horse, and spurred it into a sprint for the road home.

The village fight-master stepped up next to Dresten, shaking his head and laughing.  The other village natives that had come out were laughing with him.  “Thanks for the horses!” Bryan shouted after the escaping attacker.  After the laughter died down, he turned and faced Dresten.  The weight of what had really happened- and what had almost happened- was beginning to rest on his shoulders.  He took a deep breath, and let it out sharply.

“You and your friends are welcome here for the rest of your days,” he said.  “The village council will back me up on this.  You will be honored guests here whenever you like.”

Dresten nodded, and began disassembling his polearm.  “We just might take you up on that, Bryan.”

*****

The caravan was half way to Tower Hill when Xeren caught up with them. She and Marlena rode beside Lincoln’s carriage.  The sky was overcast, but the air was pleasant, and while the forest held more shadows than usual, the road was bright enough that they didn’t have to worry about the Turned.  There had been a storm a few days earlier that had darkened the skies enough for them to come out, but the animals had been stowed in their carriages and everyone had stayed inside.  The storm had come and gone, and so had the Turned.

“It’ll work better than I had expected it to.  Hammerhand is close enough to Oak Bridge that you could walk the distance in just over half of a day.  Riverbend isn’t much farther, and from there, Greybark is about the same distance.  So there’s two places they could leave from, and two villages they could get to.”

“They’d still be going through the forest.  Even during the day, that’s risky,” Lincoln said.

Xeren smiled.  “You just need the right kind of guide.”  At that point, her head snapped forward, toward the road ahead, and her eyes narrowed.  Marlena did much the same thing.  They looked at each other, then sped their horses up slightly to get ahead of the carriage.  Lincoln turned to look behind him, and caught the eye of Jacob McCandles on the carriage behind.  The younger man understood the look perfectly.  He turned to look behind him and gave a short shout to get the attention of those behind him.

Four black-clad figures stepped out of the forest on either side.  They were in their mid-teens, tall, thin and strong, and carried long spears.  The points were toward the sky, ready but not agressive. The threats lived in the expressions.  The one who looked the oldest – 16 years was a good guess- shouted as much as she spoke.

“What is your business in Tower Hill?”

Lincoln answered her.  “We’re merchants, come to trade.  What has happened to Tower Hill that they need to send guards out this far from the fence?”

The girl answered by giving a shout.  A dozen more young men and women, all dressed identical, stepped out of the woods on either side.  All were carrying these odd spears, with a curved blade on the end.

At that moment, Grunnell happened to come out of his carriage.  He only saw the spear-carriers, threatening his extended family, and his instinct was to draw his sword.  That sound shook the nerves of the young spear-man closest to him, who turned his spear toward the giant’s chest.  It was too late, though- Grunnell gripped the shaft of the weapon, pulled it out of the way, and swung his sword straight down and through his attacker’s wrists.  Both hands came off instantly, and the young man howled in pain.

From there, chaos flowed right down the line of spears to the head of the caravan.  Marlena and Xeren both dismounted and drew weapons, and Jameson had already come forward toward Grunnell.

The battle would have gone worse for the gypsies if Kim Jennings hadn’t thought ahead to defending herself against humans on this trip.  It hadn’t been so long ago that her daughter, Julia, had been kidnapped by bandits on the road.  Marlena had brought the girl back, but Kim had vowed it would never happen again.  She had climbed atop her family’s carriage when she’d heard Jacob’s warning, keeping her bow and a dozen or so arrows out of sight.  At every village where they had stopped, she’d practiced.  She’d fired five shots, hitting four of the attackers in the torso, before she made the mistake of firing on the leader.  The arrow missed, but the girl quickly noted its source, then discovered that her numbers were thinned out considerably already.  She shouted another command, and the black-clad ambush disappeared back into the trees.

Xeren and Marlena could feel them until they were a long way off, heading back toward the village.  They mounted their horses, and moved back to Lincoln’s carriage.  He was just climbing back aboard.

“They’ll be back with greater numbers,” Marlena said.  “Turn around, and head back.  I’ll go closer, and see if I can find out what’s happening here.”

“I’ll go with you,” Xeren offered.  “Lead our horses with you, but keep them close in case we need them in a hurry when we get back.”  She took a deep breath.  “I’ve never seen the Believers in person, but from what I’ve heard, that’s pretty much what they look like.”

Marlena’s lips compressed.  “I have seen them up close, and that’s precisely what they look like.”  Lincoln nodded- he’d fought against them, too.  “I’d just like to see what they’re doing in Tower Hill.”

*****

Mal and his team spread out to get a good look at the land. It was a rather good position, he thought.  The view in the distance was spectacular- it was on a small rise in the land, and they could easily see anything that would approach from the forest in any direction.  And off to the east, he could see mountains.  It was awe-inspiring; the tops of the forest-covered titans seemed to be shrouded with mist.  He wished there was a way he could go there- perhaps a village was closer to the mountain’s feet.  Perhaps they could establish one closer, once their current project was inhabited.

The workers had been cooped up in the small temporary encampment, going over plans and dividing the work among the five teams of men that had volunteered.  Now they would finally get started.  The other team leaders were all people he knew, and one- Franklin- had worked with him at Riverbend, preparing the ground for the wall.  They’d pointed out a number of minor problems with the project design, and one of Franklin’s concerns had relocated the entire project slightly to the East.

Franklin’s team had marked the outline of where the primary walls would be, and three of the teams had started digging.  That alone would take a lot of time- they had to put the first line of cement blocks low enough that the winter frost wouldn’t push them up out of the ground.  Mal and Franklin had both built enough things to know what would happen otherwise.  With a steel wire fence, it was a concern.  With these cement blocks, it was imperative.

This would be the biggest project that any of them had worked on.  When they had arrived, and their task-master had finally let them know what they were building, the excitement had been hard to contain.  It was also easy to understand the secrecy.  He was glad he could tell his wife, though- her eyes had gone wide at the thought.  For their work here, they’d be given a chance to- well, not to be wealthy, by any means, but certainly to be comfortable for the first time in their lives.

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