The Believers – Chapter 7

Just out of sight of the village of Windhaven, Lincoln heard a sharp whistle from behind him in the caravan. He turned to see a grin on Jacob McCandles’ face, then saw Xeren and Marlena jogging past the carriages to catch up to him.  The two women climbed up onto his moving carriage, Marlena sitting beside him and Xeren on the roof behind them.  Lincoln handed a water canteen to Marlena, who poured a good-sized drink into her mouth without touching her lips to the canteen.  She handed it back to Xeren, who refused.

“My aim’s not that good,” she laughed.  “Well, Lincoln, we’ve got quite an earful for you.”

The older man looked back at her.  “What’d you find out?”

Marlena took another drink.  “It’s the Believers, all right.  They’ve taken Tower Hill by force.  Starhill, Carved Rock, and Withered River as well, apparently.”

Lincoln cocked an eyebrow.  “You visited all of them?”

Marlena shook her head.  “No, we were visited outside of Tower Hill.  The woman who had followed us to the ancient’s building last time.  Jameson’s kiss.”  It was this last line that identified their visitor to Lincoln, and his expression reacted before his voice did.

“She’s Immune?” Lincoln looked at her askance, then shook his head.  He remembered seeing a woman with white-blond hair under a grey hood approaching their friend in Tarense, and kissing him on the mouth.  Lincoln had presumed at the time that she had been infected already, and he had been stunned when he learned the truth- one of the eldest of the Immune had guessed that this young woman would turn out to be Immune as well.  It seemed to be Symon’s gift- he hadn’t been wrong about it yet, at least not that Lincoln had ever heard.  Even so, kissing someone who carried the Infection seemed to him a ballsy way to find out.  “This just gets stranger and stranger.”

Marlena laughed.  “You haven’t heard the half of it.  Turns out that she was one of the Believers, like we thought– she called them the Order – but since meeting with Symon last fall, she’s had a change of heart.  She didn’t tell me what she did to the rest of them, but I gather it was hard on them because they had to abandon their old home and find a new one.”  She shrugged.  “Since I have no idea where their old home was, it doesn’t really help me much.  But that was their reasoning for taking Starhill.  And now they’ve moved most of the survivors of their attacks out to Starhill, where they’ve been put to work in the fields.  She warned us to look out for them, how they could decide to move on other villages pretty much at any time.  And she said there’s something else out here, something that’s killing and eating people like the Turned do, but doing it during the day.  Her advice was to just stay toward the east.”

Lincoln’s jaw tightened.  “That’s harsh news.  Four villages, all those people…”

Marlena nodded.  “It didn’t sound good.  The Believers were a danger before, but now they’re turning out to be just the same as the Cartersons- or worse.  And we’re kinda trapped between the two sides here.  Speaking of the Cartersons…” she motioned toward Xeren.

“Sounds like this woman had made contact with someone within Carter’s Hill who was just as frustrated with their leadership as we are,” Xeren finished the statement.  “Someone who is real close to the ruling family, though, because they could get information about their plans that sounded too good to be true.  We don’t know if our visitor was telling the truth, but it’s too good to pass up completely.  I’ll be heading that way to meet with them, and we’ll find out.”

Lincoln merely shook his head.  “Stuff like this makes my head hurt.  I hope you two can make sense of it.”  They were cresting a hill just on the edge of the forest, and could see Windhaven as they reached the top.  “Well, you guys will need to stay out-of-sight around here,” he said, with a sigh.  “These folks haven’t got the Immune quite figured out yet.”

Marlena nodded.  She still wore glasses with a red tint, and for the most part didn’t give people more than a passing glance when they visited a place like this.  Xeren stood on the roof of the carriage.  “Don’t worry, I’ll get off here and head toward Bluefield.  That’s where my meet with this informant is.  So if I vanish off the face of the earth, that’s where it happened.”  She shrugged at Lincoln’s look of concern.  “If this guy is half as good as he sounds, it’s worth the risk.”  She climbed back down the way she’d climbed up, then headed off directly into the forest.

Lincoln shook his head.  “How the hell does she navigate through the forest like that?”

Marlena smiled.  “I asked her that once, and she told me that she goes in the general direction of her destination until night, then finds a village nearby to see where she’s at.”

“But how does she find a village?” He asked, just a moment before his own mind provided the answer.

“That’s the easy part,” she replied, still smiling.  “She follows the Turned.”

*****

Cheszalt clapped her on the shoulder after she gave a respectful bow. “I hear you made it to the third rank this year, sister,” he said with a smile.  “Congratulations.”

“Yes, master, and thank you,” Ilyana replied.  She’d been defeated by one of the four semi-finalists earlier that day.  It had been a good match, but it was clear that her opponent was the better.  It’d hadn’t been luck deciding the outcome, and she was proud of her accomplishment.

“No serious injuries?  I’d like you to be part of the next assault.” He continued smiling, but his attention shifted toward Starhill’s gate.  A trio of riders was galloping toward it, and Ilyana could recognize one of their scouts, Jesep, leading them.  The three dismounted, and Jesep handed off the reins of his horse to one of the others before jogging toward the master of the Order.

“Master, I have a report you need to hear,” he called.  Cheszalt nodded, closing the distance to meet him near the large wooden cage that still sat in the middle of the village.

“Go ahead, brother,” he said.

Jesep paused for a moment to catch his breath, then began to speak rapidly.  “I’ve seen some of the members of the Order that I thought were dead, master.  Dresten and Saia among them.  They were scout team leaders before, and I had thought that when the Turned broke into the Great Rock, they’d been trapped there.  Idzac was there, too – the old combat instructor.”  Jesep was bewildered by his own report.  He also looked slightly fearful of Cheszalt’s reaction.

That reaction was a darkening, dangerous expression.  When he spoke, he spoke quietly, which sounded all the more dangerous.  “Where was this?”

“Silverlake, master.”

Cheszalt turned his head, suddenly.  “Tasia!  Cygna!” he called.  His advisors were not far away, and came over quickly at his shout.

“I recognized Dresten and Saia for sure, and Linari believes she saw Idzac and a number of others.”  One of Jesep’s team nodded her agreement.  “Odyna, perhaps- she was on Dresten’s team for a long time.  There were ten of them.”

Tasia’s face was incredulous.  “Where was this?”

“Silverlake, two days ago.” Jesep repeated.  Tasia had been Jesep’s team leader before, and she trusted his eyes.  “They were leading the villagers through our training exercises.  I think they’ve made their home there.”

“Master, if they survived the Great Rock, why haven’t they returned?” Cygna asked.  “Have they turned away from us?”

Cheszalt shook his head slowly, his expression grim.  “Walthair and I had agreed that our sister, Svetlana, could not have set the Turned upon us single-handedly.  Not so effectively.  Remember all the containment doors in the halls, that we’d built to keep the Turned from spreading through the entire compound?  Remember how most of them had had their locks destroyed?  No,” he said, darkly, “I fear that Dresten and Idzac and the others out there had hoped we wouldn’t survive to discover them.”

No one spoke for a long time.  Finally Cheszalt continued.  His voice was even quieter now, but there was an intense undercurrent that chilled the skin of his advisors.  They’d seen him frustrated on occasion, and angry at a couple times.  He’d never spoken like this.  “Cygna, Tasia, organize an assault on Silverlake.  You won’t have quite as many fighters as normal, and you’ll have to have them travel in groups to get near that village without being spotted.  It’s important that you aren’t recognized along the way.  Jesep, they’ll need to know everything you know about the place.”  The younger man nodded.  “All of you, come back to me tonight with a plan.  I want you to be ready to leave by the day after tomorrow.”

*****

Passing by Carved Rock was grating on Emily’s nerves. She tried hard to keep it from bothering her- they had plenty of other villages to visit, plenty of opportunities for trade elsewhere- but she’d been born there, and visiting home would always be the highlight of the season.  Her mother had died when she was seven, taken by the Turned.  They’d breached the fence and nearly taken the whole family.  Mother had given her life to save her husband and daughter.  The next day, Father had decided they would join a gypsy clan that he was friendly with.  While they were not really any safer traveling than they had been living in Carved Rock, it was better for them.  Their friends in the village still welcomed them, but their home was on the road now.  Since Michael, the caravan’s leader, had died, years earlier, her father had taken up the leadership of the clan- much to his surprise.  That had been six years ago.

Especially grating to her was that she wanted to pass the word to them of her father’s death.  It had been peaceful, a natural death in a time when hardly anyone lived long enough to die of old age.  She was thankful that they’d had the chance to say goodbye, that she could hold his hand as he fell asleep.  But their old friends would wish to know, and she was being denied the chance to tell them.

The word she’d gotten from Windhaven made it too risky.  People weren’t gossiping about it- it was fact, not speculation.  Something had definitely happened there, and in the other villages nearby Starhill, and she wouldn’t risk going there.  It wasn’t her own life at risk.  She had four families with her, and they depended on her as much as she did on them.

“Emily,” a voice called from behind her.  “Someone is coming up the road behind us.”

She turned to the source of the voice- Rickard, an old, grizzled friend of her father who had a direction sense that seemed impeccable.  He was turned in his saddle as well, looking down the corridor between the trees.  It curved gently to the left, and sure enough, someone was jogging toward them.

Something about the way they looked- Emily thought it was a woman, but couldn’t tell just yet- made the hair stand up on the back of her neck.  Her instincts almost had her shout a warning backward, to get the others alerted and ready to defend themselves if they needed to.  She caught herself short, but Rickard had turned to look at her.  He recognized the look, the near-shout, for what it was.  It had confirmed what his own instincts were telling him.  He shouted the warning before Emily could draw the breath to do it herself.

The caravan stopped.  Bradley, who had been driving the last carriage in line, saw Rickard’s gaze and turned to see what the warning was about.  He had his sword on the seat beside him, and had picked it up and climbed down to the ground just as the woman came near.  It was a woman after all, Emily could see now, but she was different.  She wore black pants that had been ripped off above the knees, and a tunic that had no sleeves.  She wasn’t excessively tall, but she looked very powerful.  Emily’s fear seemed to be reinforced when the woman didn’t slow her approach.  It was confirmed when she reached Bradley.

He’d called a greeting to her first, then a warning, then drawn his sword from its scabbard.  The woman didn’t stop, only kept moving steadily and directly at him.  When she was five steps away, she leapt into the air, twisted like a cat, and planted a frightening kick into Bradley’s chest.  He was tossed against the back of his carriage, then fell to the ground.  Emily couldn’t see what happened next- the carriage blocked her view of both of them.  The others in the clan were leaping to the ground, drawing weapons and rushing toward the end of the train.  Then they started screaming.

The next few minutes were a complete blur to Emily.  It was all happening too fast.  She caught glimpses of what was happening, but her mind couldn’t make sense of it.  Bradley’s body being thrown at the next person to approach.  This frightening woman coming alongside the carriages, knocking aside the sword being thrust at her and smashing her elbow into Jurgen’s face.  Rickard shouting orders that she could barely hear.  One by one, everyone in her clan fell. She wasn’t just knocking people down, she was crushing them.  And with a few of them, she’d taken a moment to bite them, tearing flesh right off the bone.

It was when the woman reached Rickard that Emily’s senses returned to her.  He’d missed with his own sword, and the woman wrapped one arm around his sword-arm and shoulder like a snake.  Then she stepped close to him, sinking her teeth into Rickard’s neck.  His face turned red for a moment, then paled quickly.  The woman wrenched her head backward, pulling with it veins and connective tissue, spraying blood backward as Rickard’s vein depressurized.  Then both of her hands clasped the old man’s face, and she twisted her entire body around in a way that nearly turned his head completely backward.  He fell into the leaves, and didn’t move.  The woman straightened as she released him, raising her head to the skies, and slowly letting her arms fall to her sides.

Emily stood still.  Part of her hoped that if she was silent, this woman- this thing- wouldn’t notice her, wouldn’t come for her.  But everyone in the clan was dead, and even if she did make it to the next village, she’d have nothing to bring with her now.

The woman’s head lowered, and she turned slowly to look over her shoulder.  Her hair was black streaked with grey, long and loose, disheveled and stained with blood.  Her clothes were ragged, torn at the shoulders and thighs.  Her face was angular, linear, and a little bit weathered.  Her body was unlike any Emily had ever seen- her muscles bulged everywhere, disproportionately large, and her skin was pulled taut across them everywhere it showed.  It was a frightening effect, but the most frightening was her eyes.  Even at a distance of ten meters, Emily could see that the eyes were completely red.

Emily had met the Immune before, and had a guarded but neutral view of them.  Like anyone else, they could be pleasant or abrasive, good or bad, helpful or dangerous.  This woman didn’t fall into any description Emily could think of.  She stood completely still as the woman turned to face her, and couldn’t even turn to run as the woman approached her.

She couldn’t even ask the question on the tip of her tongue.  Her body had stopped responding, and her mind was only partially aware of the hammering of her own heart.

The woman came close, only inches away.  They were almost the same height, and they stared at each other for a long moment before the woman broke the silence.

“Why?” she whispered.  “Is that what you want to ask me?  Why?”

Emily’s shock was broken by the sight of the woman’s tears.  They dripped down her cheeks, falling on the fabric of the black tunic over her breasts.  But then the hands moved, grasping Emily’s head on each side of her face.  She couldn’t feel the motion, her senses not fast enough to even report on it.  She did feel a small crack, but couldn’t tell where it had come from.  She didn’t feel herself fall to the ground beside her carriage.  Her eyes were open, but she couldn’t see.  She didn’t feel the woman tearing pieces of flesh off to devour them.

*****

It was a miserable, dirty state of affairs, Grendon saw. It had been sunny for most of the day, but in the mid-afternoon the sky had become overcast, and now it was raining.  Most of the village was mud now, and 27 families were camped out in it.  Riverbend was known for its weavers, and the local villagers had helped build tents for the visiting workers, but even the best fabrics only kept out so much water.  Most of the visitors had brought little other than their clothes, which was fortunate because everything they owned was now soaked.  Grendon had ordered them in from the fields an hour earlier, worried that the clouds may darken the sky enough for the Turned to come out from the trees.

27 extra families were crammed inside the perimeter.  Well, not anymore.  There were 25 according to the list he’d had made in the morning.  They’d had a steady stream of families coming in, and many returning home after a few days of work, but always more coming than going.  And each day, it had seemed like more were missing.

Grendon was the guard captain assigned to Riverbend, and the health and safety of the people here was his responsibility.  He was fair with them, and believed he had gotten along well with the villagers and their council over the past few weeks.  Having the new wall finished certainly brightened everyone’s spirits.  But something was nagging at him, and he believed it was something to do with those people who were disappearing.  He had no proof of it, nothing to report, but it was something he should keep track of, and report if anything was unusual.

Only one person in the guard detachment knew how to read and write, and she’d been made recordkeeper.  For the past two mornings, they’d had everyone check in with her when they left through the gate to go to work, and check back in when they returned.  He’d ordered the guards to keep their eyes open around the edges of the forest, to watch for the Turned, but no one had seen anything.  Grendon found it hard to believe that anyone would keep their voice down if they were attacked by the Turned.

He also found it hard to believe that it was a coincidence that entire families had been disappearing together.  Families of four, five, and six people all just vanished sometime during the day, leaving behind- well, not leaving much of anything behind, really.  He suspected that there were other workers in the fields who saw what was happening, or who at least knew about it, but were keeping their mouths shut.

Grendon shook his head.  He looked up at the small roof over his head, the entry to the small inn that had become his favorite place in town.  It served mostly the soldiers, but occasional travelers through the area brought new customers, too.  There were fewer now that the village had entered an agreement with Carter’s Hill, but the soldiers made up for it.

Drelya approached him through the rain, trying to protect her notes from the water.  Once under the protective roof, she pulled them out, dried them a little, then held them out for him to see.

“You were right, sir.  Yesterday morning there were 27 families, and last night 25 checked back in at the end of the day.  This afternoon when you called them in, there were only 22.”

Grendon shook his head.  “Where are these people going?  Are they just vanishing into the forest?”

She shrugged.  “I don’t know, sir, but I remember our orders about keeping people from wandering away from the village.  I can’t help but think that people are coming here as a waypoint to get somewhere else.”

Grendon took a deep breath.  “Well, we can’t just assign a guard to every single family in town, and we can’t put everyone on a leash.”  He shook his head.  “Tomorrow, I want you to ride back to Carter’s Hill and report.  We’ll see if they come up with any ideas for us.”

She nodded, then went inside the inn.  Technically, she was off duty.

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