The Believers – Chapter 1

Gretchen always sighed with relief when the sun came up. That moment when the Turned backed away from the fence, then shambled away toward the trees was such a blessing to her.  She had nightmares that the sun would come up one day, but the Turned wouldn’t leave.  They’d beat their dead hands against the fences throughout the day, trapping the whole village inside.  Being under siege every night, by an endless army of dead bodies, was stressful enough to make you dream about the most horrifying things.

The new gate had stood strong the entire night.  Almost all of the defenders in the village had been in their armor throughout the night, just to make sure they could hold the Turned outside if the gate had failed.  It had taken two months to build it, and they’d started as soon as the ground had thawed.  This gate was set out four meters proud of the old gate- which had still been shut and locked, just in case- and would be the start point for the new perimeter wall they’d start building soon.  Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps later today.  And soon, their village would have the rediscovered cement blocks protecting them, a wall that would be much stronger against the Turned, wouldn’t rust, couldn’t be cut… and some said was even quieter when the walking dead beat their fists against it.  She chuckled at that thought- that the sound would be a concern.

Gretchen watched as some of the younger defenders turned away from the fences, and began the long process of removing their armor.  The night had been warm, and the arming clothes that they wore under the overlapping steel plates would need to be washed.  Being in armor all night was a sweaty business, especially when you’re close to flame weapons and lit torches.  Many of the men and women leaned against the large stone in the center of the village square, letting the vambraces fall off their forearms and dropping their helmets into the dust.

She admired the new gate’s construction as the Turned shrunk away farther.  The new stone-like cement blocks that they’d received seemed like a miracle, a gift from their ancestors from generations earlier.  An entire new perimeter would be built before winter, and the village could move past the fear of their steel-wire fences being breached.  With the amazing things the ancients were supposed to be capable of, she had often wondered how they had been nearly exterminated by the Turned.  They hadn’t been ready, she had told herself.  They were simply unprepared.  We can deal with them every night only because we know they are coming.

She turned to face the rising sun.  The Turned left the eastern side of the village first, as the light began to grow, but disappeared into the forest on that side last.  The shadows of the trees protected them from the light for a few extra minutes, while on the other side, the light pushed shadows away, into the forest, and even though the sun hadn’t cleared the horizon quite yet, the Turned on the western edge had already fled through the trees, looking for patches of shade deep enough to wait out the day.

The defenders didn’t need to do much while the sun was up.  They each had other duties around the village- she was one of the armor-smiths, and lately most of the village’s trade goods had been dedicated to purchasing the new cement blocks- but this day would be restful.  Unless some bandit clan decided to pay a visit later on in the day.  Not likely, as the village of Carved Rock had the enviable reputation of being harsh on bandits.

Her husband, Daniel, appeared behind her, with a gauntlet-covered hand on her shoulder.  He held his helmet under the other arm, his axe hanging at his belt.  He smiled wide.  They’d spoken at length about the new gate, and the new block wall, throughout the night.  His silence said more about his relief at the morning than words could.  She began unfastening the chin-straps to remove her helm.  After pulling it off, she noticed her husband’s expression had changed.  He was staring out at the eastern tree-line, squinting into the sun.  She shielded her eyes with her hand, trying to find what he was looking at.

There was movement out there, but she couldn’t be sure what it was.  She began moving across the village square, headed for the eastern gate, and Daniel followed her, stepping up beside her onto one of the wooden platforms on either side of the gate.  The sun was making it difficult to see, but something was moving across the wide fields toward them.  All she could see at this point were dark spots, lots of them, getting closer.  It wasn’t until she focused on the spots on the outer edges that she could get an idea of what she was looking at.

It was definitely people, dressed darkly, running at a measured pace across the field.  The planting fields that the village surrendered to the Turned every night put almost three kilometers between the village and the forest.  They were also on the crest of a gentle rise in the earth, giving them excellent visibility all the way to the trees.  The runners were half-way across the field when she could discern that they were carrying long poles before them.  The sun glinted off of the metal blades mounted on the ends.

“Daniel, they’re Believers,” she said, darkly.  Then she turned her face back to the square and shouted in a voice that she saved for defense drills.

“To arms!”

The effect of the resting defenders was immediate.  Within two minutes, every one of them was fully armored again, rushing to the western fence to see what was happening.  But they were orderly about it, despite their surprise and confusion, she noticed with a smile- they took up the empty positions around the gate and backing up the fence, just as they had practiced.  They may not know what was happening, but they knew how to follow orders.

Wrellin, the village’s drill-master, stepped up on the platform behind the two.  He was the tallest man in the village, and had no problem seeing over their heads.  “What is it?”

“The Believers are coming,” Daniel said.  “I thought they attacked just before dusk, but these people are carrying the same kinds of weapons.”

Wrellin shook his head.  “Everyone has been up all night, we’re exhausted.  But if they’re going to try to hit the fences again, we need to get out in front of it and stop them.”  He stepped off the platform, and shouted commands at the defenders arrayed around the gate.  Within moments, both gates had been dragged open and the defenders that had stood behind the fence now stood in front of it.  As the arriving force approached, the defenders drew their axes.  While they had a few swords around the village, no one used them very much- and they were much more practiced with axes.  They now stuck with what they were used to.  Five flame-weapon teams had dispersed amongst them.  Gretchen and her husband joined the force outside the gate.

They’d fought the Believers before.  Twice, that she remembered.  They were some kind of religious cult, fanatics who believed that the Turned were a punishment sent to exterminate humankind.  They attacked the fences around a village, not the defenders, in the hope that the Turned would find their way through and eat the inhabitants.  Their strategy was usually to attack close to nightfall, so that the villagers had little time to repair the holes in their perimeter.  With an attack this early in the day, they’d have plenty of time to repair the damage.  It was that thought that made Gretchen’s mind re-think what was happening.

This attack is different, she told herself.  They’d be fools to attack the fence when we have so much time to fix it.  Then she began to try to get a count of how many attackers were coming toward her, and the gravity of their situation suddenly became clear.  Usually the Believers would send a team of 10 or 12.  She’d heard of attacks by as many as 20 at a time.  But charging toward her were at least a hundred people.  All of them were dressed in black, and carrying the signature weapon the Believers used to cut through the fence material and the armor she and her fellow defenders wore.  They were long wooden poles, like a spear, but with a curved, wicked blade on its end.

The vanguard of the attack had come to within 10 meters of the fence when they paused.  Instead of forming a line, they clustered into groups of five, then moved forward.  It didn’t take long for Gretchen to see that there was a cluster for every single defender outside the fence, and many more coming up behind.  As they moved closer, several of the defenders stepped forward to meet them, to keep them from coming closer to the fences.  Gretchen watched four different fights simultaneously, then a half-dozen more as their tactics became clear.

Three of them would engage a single, armored defender and overwhelm them.  With the reach of their long weapons, they didn’t need to get very close.  Then, as the defender tried to fend off their attacks, the remaining two in the cluster would leap in close on either side with a sword.  The defender would be hit in the back almost every time, and once they were hit, the wicked blades on the ends of the poles would be used to peel their armor away.

“Stay together!” she shouted at the other defenders near her.  They formed a rough line, but there were only a dozen or so left.  She looked for their flame weapons, but their carriers had already been killed.  They lay where they had stood, thrown knives protruding from their chests.  Daniel stepped forward, seeing an opportunity.  She shouted at him to come back, but he couldn’t hear her.

As one cluster nearby finished killing a defender, Daniel leapt onto one of their pole-weapons, pinning it under his armored shins and disarming its carrier.  They didn’t hesitate to try to draw another weapon, but Daniel had dealt the woman a killing blow before her short sword left its sheath.  He was close enough to the second spear-carrier, and wounded them badly before the third brought their weapon around.  The two sparred for another moment, but when Daniel moved in, he didn’t see the attacker flanking him.  Gretchen screamed a warning, but it was too late.  The black-clad form leaped into the air, driving their sword down between the bottom edge of the helmet and the top edge of the back-plate.  The chain aventail that covered that space would have stopped the claws of the Turned, but against this kind of thrust it had no chance.  The attacker had heard her scream, and their eyes locked for the split-second before they landed.

It was a boy.  He couldn’t have been more than 14 years old.  And when Gretchen began to scan the other faces of the attackers, she realized that they were all children.  The clusters were led by young men and women, maybe 16 or 17 years, but for the most part, the entire force was made up of children who were 15 years old at most.  Some looked as young as 13.

The shock of seeing Daniel die combined with this horrific realization, and paralyzed her.  She tried to fight back when they came at her, but her movements were uncoordinated and weak.  One of the spear-carriers swung their blade up near her face, rocking her back on her heels, while another hooked her ankle.  She was on her back a moment later, with two of the spear-blades right on her throat.  Something held her arms down at the wrists, but her vambraces prevented her from being able to feel what held her.   The helmet kept her from seeing anything but the morning sky.  She could hear them rushing past her for what seemed like an eternity.  Her earlier guess at their numbers was low, she thought.  Hands touched her throat, moving under her own aventail, seeking the buckles that held on her helmet.  Soon they were released, and her helmet was pulled off her head.

The two spear-carriers were holding her wrists down with their feet.  Another knelt across the greaves on her legs, pinning them with her weight. The girl that knelt beside her head was 18 at oldest.  Her voice was a contradiction; a girl’s voice, but an older woman’s tone.

“Do not move until you are told to, or you’ll be dead where you lay.”

*****

Regis’s Inn was relatively quiet that morning. Marlena sat by herself at a table, sipping infrequently at her ale and going over in her mind all the things she’d been told and had overheard in the past few weeks.  Her hair was tied behind her in a long, blond braid, and her eyes were hidden behind glasses with a red tint.  She knew she didn’t need to wear them here- not in this town- but she was so used to them that she often forgot she had them on.  Not wearing them was what she would notice now.

Tarense was a fairly large town, and was certainly the busiest place she’d ever seen.  It was the only known source of steel within a month’s travel, which was about as far as anyone she knew had been in their entire lives.  And now that they had re-discovered how to make stone-like blocks out of cement, it would only get bigger and busier.  Smaller villages peppered the countryside, but they usually had a population of a few hundred at most.  Tarense was home to almost a thousand.  Every gypsy clan and merchant group would come through there at least a couple times during the year, and despite how harsh the weather got in winter, it was still the most popular place to wait out the cold.  Gypsies talked as much as anyone, more than most, perhaps, and had carried a lot of news.  Some of it was encouraging, some of it exciting, and some of it was frightening.

A slender hand set a full glass on the table in front of her.  Marlena’s eyes came up, followed the arm up to its owner- a petite, pale-skinned woman with long, impossibly-straight red hair.  Her eyes were a clear, pale blue- a deceptive color, in this case, but it wasn’t intentional.  The visitor smiled down at her before taking a seat across the table, and set her own drink before her.

“Good morning, Xeren,” Marlena said, smiling back.  Their relationship had been through some steep ups and downs before, but presently was fairly steady.  Saving her life probably had a lot to do with that, she thought.

“I hear you’re leaving with Lincoln later on today,” Xeren replied.  “I was hoping I might join you.”

Marlena cocked her head to one side.  Xeren didn’t need to travel with a group any more than Marlena did herself- which was a bit of a rarity in those days.  Most people had to have shelter from the Turned for the night, or they’d get eaten- or become Turned themselves.  Marlena and Xeren were among the very few who had become infected, but survived.  Everyone else would be killed by so much as a scratch.  She didn’t know who had coined the term ‘Immune’, but it had stuck.  “I thought you preferred to travel alone,” she said. Then she shrugged.  “It doesn’t matter to me, but we’re not going anywhere special.”

“You’re heading back to where that bunker is,” Xeren replied, with a thin smile.  “You know, if they had any brains at Carter’s Hill, they’d have sent a small army back there to pull the roof off and drive out all those snakes.  They might be there right now, and if they’re there when you show up, they’ll burn you alive.”  Which was no exaggeration- many people treated the Immune the same as the Turned, and the only known way to destroy the Turned was to burn them completely.

Marlena nodded.  “You’re absolutely right, but even with a small army, they won’t want to stay there overnight.  Besides, they thought there was only one treasure hiding there- and that treasure is now here.  They’re making cement blocks by the thousands out here.  And not just that, they’ve told everyone who asks how they do it.  The secret is out.”  She smirked.  “You know, it wouldn’t take much for you to put together a delivery group.  You’ve travelled as much as I have, and can find your way around pretty much anywhere.  Could make you rich really fast.”

Xeren chuckled.  “I have everything I need.  There’s enough people out there who don’t.  Why rob them of an opportunity?”  She paused to take a drink.  “But you’ll be going fairly close to Carter’s Hill itself, too.”

“Going right into the mouth of the monster?”  Marlena shared Xeren’s intense dislike for the leadership of that city, but where their opinions conflicted was on the matter of what to do about it.  Marlena simply avoided the problem by avoiding the city.  Xeren was a believer in more direct action.

“I’ve got an idea, and I want to talk to you about it.”  Xeren put down her glass, and held up a hand, placating, as she noticed Marlena’s expression darkening.  Xeren’s past ideas on fighting against the ruling family of Carter’s Hill had involved a lot of innocent casualties.  “No, no, you’ll like this.  It’s right up your alley.  In fact, I’m surprised someone like you hasn’t tried this before.  I’ve been talking to that friend of yours who came from Carter’s Hill- Sarah- and she just may end up helping me.”

Marlena took another sip.  “Am I going to need another drink before- or after- hearing about this?”

“I thought you didn’t get drunk,” Xeren teased.  “No, listen.”  She spent three minutes outlining her plans, and while Marlena could point out a few potential problems, they weren’t unsolvable.  It certainly wasn’t the kind of idea she would expect from Xeren.

“So, what did Lincoln say when you asked him about tagging along?”

“I haven’t asked him yet.  I wanted to ask you first.”  Xeren sighed.  “Look, what happened at the bunker- I was seeing things from such a different perspective, and the only good choice I thought I had was…” her voice trailed off.

“Was through me?” Marlena finished the thought.

“Yes.”  Xeren looked across the table, right into Marlena’s eyes.  “I saw Carter’s Hill using that discovery to build an empire that we would never be able to stop, and they have always hunted the Immune.  If they’d gained control up here, where would we go?  The only thing that I thought would stop that from happening was to keep that secret from seeing the light of day.”  She sighed.  “Your solution was better; if everyone can build walls out of the stuff, then it’s not an advantage anyone can hold over anyone else.  And despite my threats to you and your friend, you still saved my life.”

Marlena nodded.  “You may be vicious sometimes, but you’re not stupid, and you’re an honorable woman… more or less.  Besides, you just may have come up with the one thing that we can do to shake the Carterson’s grip on power.”

“I certainly hope so.”  Xeren finished the last half of her drink in one long draught.

*****

The old gypsy-caravan’s leader was wearing blues that morning– clothes that were only a few weeks old.  The fabric had been bought with his share of the caravan’s extra profits from the previous travel season.  The trousers were simple, but the shirt had been made to look like the sky with scattered, fluffy clouds.  He made his own clothes, and was often playful with their design.

Lincoln had been speaking to two burly-looking men when Marlena and Xeren approached.  He made eye contact with the two women, but Marlena smiled, shook her head, and looked over at the wagons; it was her way of letting the old trader know they didn’t want to interrupt.   He went on talking, explaining what he expected from passengers, discussing where they would be sleeping and what they would be bringing along.  Since the two were only bringing a few boxes, Lincoln would have plenty of space for them.  And they weren’t going far, so if there were any inconvenience, it wouldn’t be for very long.  Marlena had overheard this conversation many times, and knew when it was coming to a close.  She stepped closer to Lincoln and his new passengers, and he waved her and Xeren over.

“This is Marlena, one of our regular troupe, and a friend of hers, Xeren,” Lincoln said.  He didn’t feel the need to make the conversation complicated.  “These two are the Reynolds brothers, Arthur and Lee, and they’ll be traveling with us as far as the village of Silverlake.”

Marlena nodded to them, and they nodded back.

“You have business?” Lincoln asked, looking from one of the women to the other.

“I’d like to travel with you, as well, if it’s not trouble,” Xeren said.  “Not sure of my destination.”

His first reaction was to glance at Marlena, who shrugged.

“Well, I only have two concerns, and one of them is that you came close to doing serious harm to Marlena here.  If you’ve solved that issue with her, then it’s no problem with me.  It’s not as if I’d have to worry for your safety if one or the other ran off in the night.”  Marlena chuckled at that.  “The other issue I have is with your reputation for not telling people you’re Immune until it’s too late.”  He said this loudly enough for the nearby brothers to hear.

Xeren smiled.  “I think everyone in your troupe knows me, or knows of me,” she replied, “and they’ve been traveling with Marlena, so I shouldn’t make them any more or less nervous than they were before.  I promise I won’t infect anyone.”  She glanced at the Reynolds brothers, who had both taken a tiny step back at the revelation that she was infected.  Marlena’s bloodshot eyes they had noticed over the top of her red-tinted spectacles, but Xeren showed no outward signs at all- a gift she had a reputation for using to her advantage in many ways.  The brothers regained their composure quickly enough, but inwardly Xeren had a good laugh at their expense.

“Well, then,” Lincoln said, “you’re welcome to join us.  You’ve always traveled light, I presume that hasn’t changed?” Xeren nodded- her ability to walk among the Turned without fear often brought out the desire to do so.  To carry excess baggage would make that sort of trailblazing difficult.

With that, Lincoln turned to Marlena.  “Has Symon convinced Jameson to stay here and work for him?”

“Not quite,” Marlena said.  “If anything convinces him to stay, it will be how much armor he’ll be able to make here. Hammer-work seems to be how he holds onto memories of home.”  Jameson had nearly been killed by his own villagers when he had discovered his immunity the hard way.  Unfortunately, that was not an uncommon story amongst the Immune- Xeren’s tale was particulary disturbing.  “They’ve got more steel set aside for him to work on than he’s ever seen in his life.  But at the same time, we’ve got work amongst our caravan to keep him busy, too.  He’s completely re-outfitted Grunnel’s armor already, and is nearly done with Lavender’s suit.”

At that point, Jacob McCandles joined them, introducing himself to the new passengers.  “Everyone is just about packed up and ready to go.  Leon is finishing up a transaction, but he says he’ll be done and ready to go in 20 minutes.”  Jacob was lieutenant and protege to Lincoln, and was slowly taking daily management tasks of the troupe off the older man’s shoulders.  He was stepping up to the task nicely, and Lincoln was sleeping better with the knowledge that his ‘families’ would be well taken care of if something happened to him.

“Thank you,” he said.  Then he turned his attention to the brothers.  “Well, you say you’re ready to leave anytime- get your stuff stowed in the blue carriage second from the end of the line.”  He pointed down the line of boxy carriages.  The two nodded, and moved off to get their luggage.  “Xeren, you ready to go?”

She nodded, spreading her hands.  “What you see is what you get,” she said.

“Very well.”

*****

Tasia had found it easier to blend in at Tarense than she had expected. She had nothing to sell, and only enough steel coins for a room and food.  But the gypsy clans and merchant troupes were keen to hire fighters to guard them, and she seemed like any other fighter looking for work.  The fact that she fought in such a different fashion had never been questioned- which was good, because she still hadn’t created a cover-story answer for it.  Anyone who had survived an attack by the Order had a chance of recognizing the combat techniques taught to their members.

The previous three days had given her plenty of time to see how the cement was made, and once that step had been achieved, casting it into blocks was simplicity.  The end product was an amazing thing, and she could only imagine what the villagers thought of it.  She didn’t need to imagine what the rest of the Order thought of it.

One merchant group in particular was heading much the same way she was- in the general direction she would need to travel to return to the Order, and make her report.  She was toying with the idea of tracking the merchants, and sending a team to relieve them of their cargo.  As she leaned against a building, overlooking the lower gate, watching the merchants prepare to leave, she was suddenly aware of someone behind her.

For a moment, she froze.  She didn’t want to give away her awareness of their presence, but they might be prepared to attack at any moment.  It was the breath on her neck- they were that close to her.  They wouldn’t have hesitated to attack her, if that was their intention.  They must have moved slowly to get this close, expertly and silently.  Not many people could do that, even in such a noisy place.  She turned slowly, calmly, to face the intruder, but nothing could have prepared her for the face she saw.

Her skin was still fair, Tasia saw.  Her hair was still white-blond, although it was much longer now.  She wore the same robes- solid black- but they’d been stained by travel without an interruption for cleaning.  The pale blue eyes bored into hers with an intensity that un-nerved her.  But the whites of her eyes were red, almost entirely blood-shot.  Tasia felt her breath catch.

“It’s true.  You’re one of the Turned.”

Svetlana smiled.  “No, not the Turned.  I’m immune, younger sister.”

Tasia’s eyes narrowed.  “Are you still my sister?”

Svetlana nodded.  “My fight is only against the heads of the Order, not its body.”

“Do you know how many of your brothers and sisters you condemned to the Turned the night you returned?”

Svetlana only nodded.  “The Council had plenty of time to save them, if they’d been willing to sacrifice themselves to do it.  Not a big surprise that the council failed them.”  She sighed.  “That aside, I see you’ve taken an interest in the cement industry here.  Especially the deliveries.”

Tasia didn’t answer, and fought to keep her expression from betraying her- but her mind raced.  How long has she been watching me?

“Please understand.  I hold no malice to you, but you won’t be given the chance to overwhelm this delivery- or any other.  Return to the order peacefully, and you won’t see me again.”  Svetlana turned, moved between two nearby buildings, then vanished around a corner.

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