The Believers – Chapter 9

The grey walls were an amazing sight, whether seen from afar or close up. The outer perimeter wall was a double-wall, forming a two-meter corridor around the outside edge of the city.  Above, wooden beams and planks spanned the distance, creating a space for the guards to patrol the wall.  It was wide enough for two horses to pass each other, but Mal didn’t think anyone would be riding up there.  Along the wall were evenly-spaced towers, providing a stair to get back to the ground and shelter for the guards who would inevitably get duty in the rain or, more rarely, snow.

The walls that divided the five sections of the city from each other only had a one-meter space between them, and each section had a pair of gates to each adjacent section.  They would doubtlessly be controlled strictly.  The Cartersons enjoyed making sure everyone stayed where they were supposed to be.

Mal already had a place picked out to ask for.  He’d known better than to ask for space in the center section, the richest part of the new city.  He’d put in a modest request, and believed it would be granted easily after all his work here.  While going through the mindless tasks of the days, he’d designed his family’s new home completely, and had built it in his own mind.  It would be simplicity to assemble it in the real world.  He’d described it in detail to his wife, who unfortunately couldn’t visualize it.  Oh, well, she’d see it soon enough.  She was content to help support the working teams, preparing food for the men who spent their days hoisting cement blocks into place.

Mal walked around to the southern gate, which was closest to the temporary compound he and the others were living in.  The wood-workers were nearly finished assembling the door, and would hang it in place later that day.  The other gates were nearly finished, as well, but this one would be the first.  It swung out, which Mal thought was odd, but as was said to him, the Turned wouldn’t be bright enough to pull on the door.  They’d try to push, and the cement block door-stop would resist them efficiently enough.

Mal could see through the gate, and across the expanse of the nearer section of the city.  Through the inner gate to the center section, he could see two of the work-teams building some of the first residences and support buildings.  It made him smirk a little, but he could understand.  Having put all this time and this many resources into the building of a new city, the wealthy folks would be anxious to move behind a more protective wall.  He’d heard rumors that they were planning to finish the inner gates, to make the center section safe through the night, and get the ruling family moved in while they finished work on the outer wall.  Preposterous, Mal knew.  They’d want to wait until there was reliable food production out here, until they didn’t have to go back to the old city for anything.

It would be glorious, he told himself.  Two of the men on his team caught his expression, and shared a laugh.  Mal knew they felt the same way.  Carter’s Hill had attracted people because of it’s relative safety.  That reputation would only get stronger now.

*****

Kendra’s Hollow was the closest assembly point to Starhill, and so Ilyana and the group she travelled with arrived with the greatest lead-time before moving in for their attack.  This meant that they were under the greatest threat of discovery.  They all wore common clothes, in some cases cobbled from patches, just as many travelers would wear.  There were a lot of them, and it had to seem strange to the villagers to have so many people stopping here all at once.  But the soldiers from Carter’s Hill didn’t consider them to be a threat, and there were enough of them to handle any group of travelers that tried to make trouble, right?

Ilyana smirked at the thought.  Amusing as it would be to see if the fighters from Carter’s Hill would live up to their reputation, that was not their mission.  They’d whiled away most of the day, most of them wishing they could practice or at least stretch out their muscles properly.  But they all knew better.  Any odd activity would draw the attention they were trying so hard to avoid.

The sun was setting, and again Ilyana watched the sky change its colors.  It had occurred to her that the Turned might break through the fences sometime during the night.  If that happened, everyone in the village would be called on to do what they could to help fight, even those just passing through.  Wouldn’t that be a laugh!  Fighting alongside the soldiers from Carter’s Hill!

Tasia leaned against the wooden cage that Ilyana stood in front of.  It was empty, but even still, this drew a few odd looks.  She looked around to see if anyone was close enough to overhear her.

“So what do you think of these people, having walked among them for a day?” the team’s leader asked, quietly.

Ilyana shrugged.  “Like anyone else we’ve come across, really.  This village has more hope, though, I think.  They’ve recently made a pact with Carter’s Hill, so now they have all these excellent warriors watching over them.  And apparently they’ll have their own cement block wall by the end of the summer.”  She sighed deeply.  “Interesting to see so much hope in these people, despite the threat of the Turned.”  She looked over at her team leader and smirked.  “And us.”

Tasia smiled back, and winked.  “Be cautious of how much empathy you gain for them, sister.”

Ilyana nodded, but was spared the need to reply.  Hoofbeats had drawn closer, and now she could see the source of the sound.  A large company of armored soldiers had ridden up to the gates, and was now trotting into the parade grounds.  They were dressed for travel, but their armor was plain to see in the packs on their horses, and they all carried long swords and spears.  Their uniformity belied their origin, whether they carried the crest of soldiers from Carter’s Hill or not. They dismounted quickly, and the captain of the group spoke sharply and quickly to the guards.  The horses were tied off to posts around the stable-barn, but there were too many of them to house them indoors.  The men began to pitch tents on the open ground before the gates.

“How many?” Tasia asked.  It wouldn’t seem strange for travelers to take an interest in the arrival of a force like this.

“I count 54, sister,” Ilyana replied.  “Almost as many as there are of us.”  She smiled at her lead officer again.  “Good thing we have the rooms at the inn already.”  The members of the Order had 12 of the 20 rooms the inn kept, and were sleeping 5 to a room on rough mats they’d brought with them.  None of them had complained at the arrangements- after sleeping atop the great rock, this was luxury.

Tasia shook her head.  “I think if they wanted the rooms, they’d be throwing us out right now,” she replied.  “Fortunately, they brought tents.”

“Think there’s any chance we can find out where they’re headed?”

*****

There was no chance. The entire group of soldiers was tight-lipped, speaking just enough to be polite, but quickly letting everyone who asked know that they intended to sleep as soon as possible.  This they did, bedding down just after nightfall.  Not a one of them got a drink at the inn first, which surprised even the guards that had been stationed there from Carter’s Hill.  The captain met with the village councilors briefly, then retired for the night himself.

The next morning, when the sun rose and the Turned marched back to the shadows of the forest, the members of the Order rose early, stretched out as best they could without gaining attention, then began to prepare themselves for their march.  They’d bought a small stock of food from the villagers, refilled their water skins, and were ready to get underway before the sun began to get truly hot.  They’d be at the assembly point early, possibly the first unit to arrive.

The soldiers who had ridden in the night before slept very late – only a few of them rose in time to see the group of travelers leave.  They wondered at the group, so oddly dressed, and also they were curious about the packs the travelers carried- it almost looked as if they each carried a pair of long poles wrapped within their bedrolls.  One of the soldiers was sure he’d seen a hook in one pack, similar to the kind he’d used to pull down a new cement block wall in another village, but he didn’t speak of it.

The mounted force began to take down their tents mid-morning, and formed up just before noon.  When they rode out, they were dressed in full armor, with swords at their sides and spears in their hands.

*****

The air smelled like rain. Lincoln wasn’t any better or worse at predicting the weather than anyone else.  If it began to rain, he got wet.  If the sky got dark enough, his troupe would load the animals into their carriage, just like they did at night.  It wasn’t worth the risk of a dark cloud coming up quickly enough to set the Turned upon them.  But even so, he could smell the rain coming today.  He didn’t plan on leaving Silverlake until the following day, so perhaps during this storm he could stay dry.  He could pass the time chatting with Tajita, the woman who led the other gypsy caravan that was there.  Lincoln had not met her before, and while as hard and shrewd as a traveling merchant had to be, she was a friendly soul.  A tall, dangerously-thin woman with dark hair and a lot of years behind her dark eyes, she’d come to speak to him as soon as she’d entered the village.  The two had hit off their friendship immediately, even though they both carried many competing goods.  She had come nearly directly from Tarense, planning to move farther south than Lincoln was used to.  But she came from that area, he could tell by the shape of her eyes.  Not a bad companion for a few drinks during a storm.

The villagers had given him much business, even with another clan in the village.  While the people here drove just as hard a bargain as he did, the trades were fair, and both sides were the better for it.  He would need to return to Tarense soon for steel, he knew, and in the place of the sheets and ingots, he now had a large load of grain and some very pleasant wine from Red Hill.

The land surrounding Silverlake could certainly use the rain.  It had been dry for two weeks, they’d said.  They had plenty of water to drink, but their crops would be thirsty by now.  Lincoln looked out through the gate, toward the lake and the boats on its surface.  The fish that these people produced had a flavor that no other meat could match.  It was one of his favorite stops for just this purpose.  They could buy fish that was pickled and would keep for the trip back to Tarense, but it was so much better to eat fresh.  Seeing the fishermen at work, and thinking of their harvest, made his mouth water and stomach rumble.  A good enough excuse to get some food and drink, he decided.

Tajita was there when he entered, and smiled when he took a chair near her.  The owner of the inn was on his way immediately, still grateful for the spices Lincoln had brought for him.  Lincoln made his requests for food and drink, and the owner left to set his cook at the order.

Lincoln chuckled to himself.  “Treggin here thinks I was doing him a great favor by bringing those leaves down from Tarense.  You’d think he would have figured out that I just wanted to taste it on his fish.”

Tajita laughed.  “It’s the same way for me.  Last year, I brought him a small box of salt from outside my village, and now it’s all he talks about.”  She took another drink.  “But it certainly does taste wonderful when he puts it to use.”

“Where are you from?” Lincoln asked.  Watching her eat and drink was only making his stomach complain louder, but it wasn’t her fault he’d waited this long to eat.

“Our village is within sight of an ancient city named Pheynix, and they took that name,” she replied.  “It’s twenty-five days or so from here, west and a little south.”

Lincoln’s eybrows rose.  “Twenty-five days one direction?”

She nodded.  “Yes.  You need carriages like yours and mine to make it – you’ll go for four or five days at a time without passing a village – even a horse at full gallop may not make it in a day.  The roads are in far worse shape than here.  Not as much forest, more prairies.”  She sighed, a little nostalgia in her eyes.  “Beautiful place.  In some places, it’s just sand, like near the water there-“ she pointed out toward the lake- “but there’s only a few rivers and no lakes, not like that one.  The soil isn’t as good for planting, but it’s good enough.  And there are some places where the Turned won’t set foot all night.  You can stand outside of your fences and watch them, all night, and they won’t get close enough to touch you.”

Lincoln looked at her askance.  “How do you manage that?”

“It’s the ground,” she said.  “The sand and the rocks – especially the sand.”  She set down her drink.  “There’s little rain there, and all day the sand gets baked by the sun.  When the sun goes down, the sand is still hot, and the Turned won’t touch it.  Of course, it’ll burn your own feet, too, so you need heavy boots or a carriage or something.  As children, we used to dare each other to do it.  It was a test of courage for us.  Our parents would be so angry.”

It sounded hard to believe, but it did make sense.  Lincoln laughed out loud.

“But because of that,” she said, after taking another bite, “It’s one of the last places I’ve found where the little creatures still survive.  Here, when you go out of these fences, the only animals that survive are the ones that climb trees.  There’s some little animals on the ground, but not like my home.  Around here, the Turned have eaten them all.”

“Interesting.  You chose to come here?”

She nodded.  “My home is a difficult place.  It is much hotter there than it is here, and hard to grow things.  Not many villages, not many people.   There’s just more here, more food, more rain, more people.  It’s easier to make your way, I guess.  I go home sometimes, but it’s rare.  It’s been three years now.  Tarense has so much, and the villages around here depend on people like you and me.  It isn’t a bad way to make a life, is it?  Helping people get what they need?”

Lincoln sat back as the owner of the inn set his food before him.  Then he lifted his drink in a sort of salute.  “Not at all.  And sometimes profitable, too.”

She nodded, and finished her own drink.  “So where is it you go next?”

“Hammerhand,” Lincoln said.  “We’re out of steel, but by this time of year, they’ve had a dozen clans and merchant groups come through with steel, so they’ve got all they need.  You see, that’s the secret to trading with those folks.  Everyone thinks that bringing steel to Hammerhand is the best way to profit, since they have some of the best armor-makers around.  But everyone on the roads knows that, and they all race down to Hammerhand to try to make a deal.  The council down there knows they can just wait until the next troupe comes through, and get the deal they want.”  He shook his head.  “I wait until half-way through the summer, when everyone’s forgotten the place, and they’re glad to see me because I’m bringing grain and wine with me from other places we’ve been through.”

She nodded.  “That’s the way to do it, but Hammerhand in particular might not work out for you this year.  That was my last stop, and they closed us out.”

Lincoln set down his drink, slowly.  “What do you mean?”

“They’ve got a contract with Carter’s Hill.”

“So?  That didn’t stop us last year.”

“Well, it stopped us three days ago.  They let us stay inside the village, but didn’t let us set up, and made us leave as soon as the Turned were out of sight the next morning.  The soldiers had instructions from the big city.  They didn’t say why.  I was there last year, too, when the soldiers first started arriving, and they didn’t mind us in the least.  But now,” she shrugged.  “I don’t know.  There’s plenty of other places to trade.”

Lincoln nodded, but in his mind was pondering the new information.  The Cartersons rarely gave orders like that without a reason.  Those villages needed to be able to trade, and not just for the villagers- it was no secret that the wealthier families in Carter’s Hill sent people to the nearby villages to trade for things they wanted.  Fish from Silverlake was a particular favorite, and he’d been anticipating that.  Well, all the fresh fish he’d planned to take there would have to go somewhere else…

Could it be that the Cartersons have gotten wise to Xeren’s plan? he asked himself.  It wasn’t unthinkable, he decided, and an outright ban on travelling merchants would be precisely how they’d deal with it, wouldn’t it?  Well, there were ways to investigate that, too.

At that point, the pair was joined by a short but powerful man with graying hair and a wide smile.  He had a drink in his hands for each of them.

“Always good to see each of you here,” he said, sitting at their table.

Lincoln smiled.  “Good to see you, too, Bryan.  Your perimeter wall here looks very good.  You people deserve it.”

He smiled.  “You know, it’s whispered you had a hand in bringing that discovery to light.”

Lincoln took a sip from his new drink.  “The credit isn’t for me, Bryan, but she does travel with me.”

The fight-master’s mood darkened slightly.  “Not that red-eyed infected you carry around…”

Lincoln slid the glass back across the table, in a respectful but stern challenge.  “You should know better than that, my friend.  She’s the reason you feel so much safer these days.”

Bryan took a deep breath, then pushed the drink he’d brought for Lincoln back across the table.  His eyes showed his willingness to concede the point.  “It’s just hard to get past.  I know she’s out there by your carriages, and I appreciate her not coming into town.  And to be honest, I’m one of the more tolerant people here.”  He took a deep breath.  “If it was an Immune who found that secret, I can’t imagine why they’d keep it quiet.  It’d go a long way toward making new friends with them.”

“Well, maybe this will move your heart a little more in that direction.” Lincoln took the glass back, and took a sip of the offered drink.  “You know all those extra workers you’ve had here, helping with the wall, and now with the fishing?  They’re coming here from Carter’s Hill, and they’re coming right through the forests- with guides that are Immune.”

Bryan’s jaw dropped, then he regained control and closed his mouth with an audible clack.  “I was wondering how they made it overland without getting eaten.”  He shook his head.  “You see, you need to tell people these things!”

Lincoln shook his head, too.  “It’s not up to me.  By the way, I see you’ve got some new people helping to train your fighters.”

Bryan smiled wide again.  “Oh, yes, Dresten and Idzac and their friends.  They’re incredible.  They’ve been making us far, far stronger.”

Lincoln raised his glass in a half-salute.  “I thought they looked like the Believers at first, Bryan.  I was wondering what came over you.”

Bryan gave Lincoln a hard look.  “They look that way because they used to be.  But I tell you what, just like you want us to get past our suspicion of the Immune, you treat those folks with respect.  Those ten people saved us from horsemen from Carter’s Hill just as the wall was being finished.”

That made Lincoln’s eyebrows jump.  “Really?”

“The attack was timed to catch us at a change of the guard.  We only had four or five people ready, and twenty horsemen were coming across that field.  Dresten and his friends ran out that door and put themselves in the way.  For us, for people they’d barely known.  Ten on foot against twenty on horse.  And you know what?  Only one of the horsemen lived.  One wound on our side.  A gouge on the thigh.  Outnumbered two-to-one.”  Bryan shook his head.  “I’ve never seen anything like it.  That old man out there,” he pointed his thumb over his shoulder, toward the door, “killed two of their soldiers, bare-handed against their swords, unarmored against their full plate.  I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t watched it happen.”

Lincoln was impressed.  “Well, you take good care of those people, Bryan.”

“I’m way ahead of you.  I’m hoping they’ll stay here permanently.”

*****

The sun poked through the clouds in some places, but from the look of the approaching clouds, that wouldn’t last too much longer.  The water of the lake shimmered beautifully, rippling in the gentle wind.  Marlena and Jameson wandered through the fields outside the village’s wall.

“So you think they’ll set up another village there?” Jameson asked.  “I mean, if they’re going to mine that ore, they’ll almost have to, won’t they?”

Marlena nodded.  “Just like they did when they first built Tarense.  They’ll probably clear a lot of those trees out, turn the area into farmland, like they do here.  It’ll be tough at first, but if there’s much ore down there, it’ll be worth it.  Tarense has a hard time keeping up with demand, they won’t mind at all.  They might even be the ones to get it set up.”

Jameson nodded.  Even just spending one winter there had kept him busy, and his life had been relaxing compared to the men and women mining and working in the bloomery, extracting iron from the ore that had been pulled out of the ground.  “Think they could convince some of us to get it started for them?”

She shrugged.  “It’s possible.  It sure wouldn’t hurt our reputations any.”  She sighed.  “The tough part would be finding enough of us willing to do it.  Most would just tell the normal folks to do it themselves.  There’s a couple like you and I, who would be willing to help, and a lot of them live up in Tarense.  But I don’t know that they’d want to help the people around here much.  You saw the looks the guards gave us when we arrived here.”

Jameson certainly had.  One of the guards had his hand on the hilt of his sword the whole time the two Immune were in sight.

The two of them suddenly noticed a third, sprinting down the lane between the bean-fields, heading right towards them.  They were half-way across the fields, and approaching faster than a normal person could.  Not that she was running a lot faster, but she was sustaining that speed in a way the un-infected couldn’t.  By the red hair blowing behind her, Jameson had guessed that it was Xeren.  When she got within 30 meters, he saw he was right.

She started talking rapidly as soon as she was within earshot.  “You’ve got to get Lincoln to get his carriages inside!  Right now!”

Marlena looked at the sky, skeptically.  The clouds were growing darker, but not so much as to be a worry.

“No, not the Turned,” Xeren said.  “I met Svetlana’s contact.  He said there’s a small army riding from Carters Hill to wipe this village out any way they can.  They mean to pull the doors off with their horses, and burn the whole place to the ground.  I passed them earlier this morning, when they were getting mobilized.”  She paused for a moment, looking toward the Western forests.  “And that’s not the worst of it.”

Marlena followed her gaze to the tree-line.  “You’re right.  The worst of it is right there.”

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