The Turned – Chapter 5

The huge carriages were pulled off the road, backed slowly and carefully into a practiced order that made Jameson laugh and shake his head as he’d watched.  Now they were clustered in such way that no carriage had a door turned outward, except the large carriages that held their pulling horses.  In fact, if they were careful about it, they could easily step from the roof of one carriage to another.  Each carriage had a hatch in it’s roof, specifically for this purpose.  This group had a lot of experience with being out in the wild, he could see.  They very calmly loaded the animals into two specialized carriages, and locked them up tightly. Then everyone climbed up the ladders that were attached to the side of every carriage, and stepped onto the roofs.

The sun was setting over the woods, and he guessed the place would be swarming with the Turned within another hour or so.  All of the families were atop the carriages now, and Jameson got a look at them all at once.  When they were moving, he had estimated that there were more of them than he saw now.  During the day, children ran about, rode the pulling horses, or rode alongside the caravan as it moved, and it was hard to keep track of them.  Now, they all sat calmly on the roofs of each of their carriages, looking toward Lincoln and Marlena as they stood up to address them.  And at him, he noticed.  Their eyes made him a little uncomfortable, but he figured this would have to happen eventually.

“As you have probably noticed,” Lincoln said, loud enough for all to hear him, “we have picked up another passenger early this morning.  His name is Jameson, and he was the one we saw caged at our last stop.”

“Why’d they have him caged?” someone called.  A reasonable enough question, and one he expected.  What he didn’t expect, however, was the answer.  It came from Marlena.

“Because he’s like me.  He’s Immune.”  Her eyes moved among the families, daring anyone to speak ill of her statement.  “They decided that he’s too great a threat, and they were going to kill him.  I broke him out, and now he’s coming with us.”

“For how far?” asked the largest of the men, seated nearer the back of the array of carriages.  His wife held a small girl on her lap.

“That’s up to him, as much as up to us,” Lincoln said.  “He’ll be no trouble to us, just as Marlena has been no trouble to us, but I believe he’s got enough to think about for now, what with having come close to being murdered by everyone he ever met in his life.  I’ll talk more with him about it when he’s had time to sort out his situation.  Perhaps we’ll set him down in one of the cities that will tolerate him, perhaps we’ll put him in contact with Symon and his friends.  Perhaps we’ll wake tomorrow and he’ll have run off – being Immune means he doesn’t have to fear the Turned.  For now, we’ve got enough food and wine to easily spare an extra belly’s worth.”

“If we broke him out of there, that means we won’t be able to return there, doesn’t it?” called a woman off to his left.  She was surrounded by children in their teens, and her husband sat beside her.

“Yes, it does, Kim, but after seeing what they were planning to do to him, I don’t plan on going back there anymore.  There’s plenty of other places for us to trade with, and plenty of other caravans to trade with those people.  As for Jameson’s passage, I’m sure he has some useful skill he can barter with for his passage.  We’ll discuss that presently.”  Lincoln paused.  “We’ll be at our next stop in Washovia after another night, and I figure Jameson will stay out of sight, just as Marlena does, while we do our business.  And remember, Dennis Richards, we got a warning from the village council about you last time.  Don’t push it.”  His gaze rested on a man in his late teens, just older than Jameson by his look, who squirmed slightly but smirked with some memory from their last visit.

“Unless there’s any other general news to discuss, I think I see our dead cousins coming closer, so we should all go inside.  I’ll be holding council in my carriage once you get the little ones settled in.”  With that, Lincoln turned away from the group, and led Marlena and Jameson toward the hatch in the roof that they stood on.  She descended first, and Jameson followed, scuttling down the rough oak ladder and into the carriage.

It was lit inside by a small fire in an iron stove, burned down almost to coals now, throwing shadows around the spacious interior.  The carriage looked fairly large from the outside, but still Jameson marveled by how much space there was inside.  It seemed divided into three areas.  Near the front was obviously a sleeping quarters; a hammock stretched between two built-in cabinets of drawers, a small travelling chest sat beneath it, and a large, soft-looking and well-worn chair stood nearby.  In the middle of the carriage was obviously a conference area, with a large rough table and many chairs.  There were many candle-holders on the walls, and a few on the table as well.  The ladder to the roof hatch was in this area, as was the small stove.  On the other end was a small writing desk and several bookshelves stuffed with loose papers, binders and folders.  It looked like an office, presumably where Lincoln kept track of their bartering and inventories as they traveled.

Lincoln came down the ladder behind them, then motioned for them to sit at the table, and took a seat at the end nearest his office.  He sighed deeply, looking intently at Jameson.

“So, how is your mind holding up against the events of the day?” he asked, gently.

Jameson lowered his eyes.  “I don’t know.  It’s all mixed up.  I was so angry when I left.  I almost opened the barn doors to let the Turned in on the horses.”  He breathed deeply, trying to sort out his words.  Lincoln allowed him his silence.  “They were so scared of me, and I guess I can’t blame them for that.  But my brother stood by me the entire time, and I feel bad for him, and people like him.  And no, I have no idea where I should go.  I’ve never been outside my village.”

Lincoln nodded.  “You’d be surprised how many people feel precisely the same way you do – wanting to escape from where they are, but not knowing anything about the rest of the world, whether it’s any better or worse.  Mostly… it’s worse.”  He paused.  “For my part, I don’t mind your presence, and if you can make yourself useful, you can stay as long as you want.  Being immune sure won’t hurt you there.  But it’s not entirely up to me, even if everyone else would go along with me if I did give orders like that.  I haven’t heard anyone say anything strongly opposed to you- everyone is used to Marlena, so another person like her isn’t that big of a deal to them.”

*****

“So that’s our council, such as it is,” Lincoln said.  “We meet at night to go over business, but most nights there isn’t much, and we end up swapping stories and jokes with our passengers.  Got any questions?”

Jameson chuckled.  “Lots.  How did you meet Marlena?  You seem a lot more tolerant of her presence- at least compared to how my neighbors and my father were toward me.”

Many people around the table nodded.  After a pause, the man introduced as Kevin Jennings, an older but vigorous man whose short hair was almost completely grey, laughed to himself, then said, “Lincoln, tell him about the night that we met Marlena.  I don’t think that one will ever get old.”

Lincoln chuckled, as did several people around the table.  Marlena smiled a little bit, and it made her face look very different in the candle-light.  With her blond hair reflecting the red light, she looked like a fiery demoness of some kind, beautiful and alluring and dangerous all at once.

“Well, why not, if we’ve got no business to discuss,” Lincoln said, looking around the table.  All the others shook their heads.  The only spoken response was from a middle-aged man Lincoln had introduced as Leon Richards.  With humor in his eyes, he spoke in a mock-official tone;

“I move that we suspend all business discussions to acquaint our new passenger with the troupe.”  This earned another series of chuckles.

The largest of the men at the table grunted a laugh, followed by “I second,” spoken in a deep, rumbling voice.  He looked like a born-and-bred warrior to Jameson, like he could pick up his old village’s battle instructors by the scruff, one in each hand.

Lincoln laughed, his eyebrows rising much higher than Jameson thought they should, and he said, “All opposed?”  After a silence in which everyone just grinned at each other, he said, “All right, we’ll talk business tomorrow night.  Our dealings yesterday were pretty straightforward anyway.”

He turned toward Jameson, took a sip of water from the metal glass in front of him, then began telling what was apparently one of the group’s favorite stories.

“Many years ago, back when there were only 4 families travelling with me, we were outside the ruins of a very large Ancient city.  It was an amazing sight.  Even from miles off we could see one giant structure in the center- a huge arch, towering over the city.  There must have been thousands of people living there before… before the Turned.  We were hoping there would be some things to salvage without getting attacked- there were a lot of buildings that would have been dark enough inside for them, but just as many that had large windows, or holes in the walls and ceilings.  That was before we’d built many of the carriages we have now- most notably the ones we lock the pulling horses into.  We had planned on staying over at a village that was near the ruins, but when we got to the village it had been over-run by the Turned.  So there we were, with nowhere to take shelter, in the late afternoon, the sun starting to go down, hoping we could find someplace to go where the Turned couldn’t get to.

Then, out in the middle of the road steps a young woman who looks like she has been wandering in the wild for months.  As a matter of fact, she had been, but I didn’t think it was possible at that point.  We got up close to her, and she said she could help us find a place to ride out the night without getting us all killed.  It was Grunnel there,” he pointed to the large man again, who nodded back, “who noticed that her eyes weren’t right.  Sure enough, she was infected, but I had never met anyone who had been infected and could still talk, let alone offer us help.  One thing I have to say is that Marlena never once lied about being infected.  Anyway, we figured that if she tried anything, we could overwhelm her, and we wouldn’t be any worse off than we were before.  She led us up close to the ruins, and up onto the top of one really strange building.  It didn’t have any outside walls at all, just floors and pillars, and had huge ramps from one level to the next, so it was easy enough for us to drive our carriages up into it.  At the very top of the building, the ramp had a huge crack, a break that was wider than I am tall.  We had to work fast to find a couple of timbers to put across it, but once we had, it was easy to get the horses over it.  And then we just waited.  We double-checked the area, and it was a pretty decent place to spend the evening.  But the best part was watching the Turned trying to get to us.”

This made a few of the people laugh to themselves, apparently visualizing the event as Lincoln re-told the tale.

“That ramp, you see, was the only way to get up there.”  He paused, taking another sip of water.  “The Turned knew we were up there, they could smell us, and they had no trouble walking up the ramp toward us, but either they couldn’t see the huge crack, or didn’t realize that they would have to jump to get over it.  So they’d shamble up the ramp, and just walk right off the edge and fall back down to the level below them.  It was funny at first, watching two or three come up the ramp at a time, fall back down and break themselves on the ground below.  Most of the time they’d get back up, and try it again, but sometimes they were so broken by the fall they couldn’t stand.  But the thing that was really strange was that soon, there were thousands of them.  By the time it was really, truly dark, there were so many of them climbing the ramp and falling back down, it looked like a waterfall of dead bodies, flowing constantly over this edge.”  He stopped to laugh, and many of the other men joined him.  “The damndest thing I have ever seen in my life.  Most of us couldn’t sleep, we were so amazed by what we saw.  I mean, constant pounding on the walls we can deal with,” he pointed his thumb over his shoulder towards the walls, where the thudding of dead fists could be heard on the side of the carriage as they all talked and laughed.  “But how do you sleep through the sound of dead bodies continually splattering themselves on the ground 10 meters below you?”

Jameson laughed to himself, trying to visualize what they were describing, but it was too crazy a scene.

After the laughter had died down, Grunnel spoke again.  “By morning, there was a pile of them so high we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to get out around them.  We had to wait for them to all leave, which was rather horrible.  As more of the Turned got up off the pile to go someplace dark, we could see those underneath that had been crushed.  As more got up to leave, those underneath were in worse and worse shape.”  He shook his head.  “By the time they’d gotten to the bottom, I was amazed they could still move.”

“Yes, quite an evening.”  Kevin spoke again.  “It turned out that our young lady-friend here had explored most of that part of the ruins, and had found many things of great interest to us.  My family has always been interested in books, and she found us a treasure-trove of them there – a couple of them, actually, and she would go through them and find books for us.  It’s become one of our regular stops now.”

“Do you still stay on top of that place?  Have you tried to make the Turned do that waterfall trick again?” Jameson asked.  He had been serious, but many of the men around the table laughed.

“No, we haven’t, not in a long time anyway, since the carriages have gotten so much bigger.  I don’t know that they’d fit, and if they did we’d have to find something heavy enough to set across the crack and hold up the carriages and horses as they went over.”  Lincoln took another sip of water.  He listened to the sound of the pounding fists again for a moment.

“We’ll have to stop by there again soon,” he said, looking across at Kevin, who nodded back.  “There’s a lot of people who are interested in the books we bring back, especially at Tarense.  That young smith of Sherry’s had asked us to see if we could find a few books about steel.”

Marlena nodded.  “Best place for that would be farther east.  There’s an ancient city out there that I’m sure has more information on iron-work than that boy’s head could hold.”

“We’ll get our passengers where they want to go, then swing around to the north.  It’s getting warmer now, so it’ll be easier to cross rivers to the north than to the south.”

*****

The village that their passengers had been traveling toward was quite a bit larger than the one Jameson had come from, but aside from its size it was pretty much the same.  Wire fences for a perimeter, three gates instead of two, armored fighters practicing their drills in the center of town, and a large crowd of people gathered around Lincoln, Kevin and the younger man, Jacob McCandles, who seemed like Lincoln’s protégé.  Jameson got along well with the entire troupe, which he had thought would be unlikely at best.  Marlena commanded a great deal of respect from the adults, and while she obviously frightened many of the children, they were just as respectful.  As Lincoln and the others bartered steel and tools and weapons for food, wine, and other hand-made things that the village produced, he and Marlena sat atop one of the animal carriages, looking out over the fields on all sides.

“They came at my village from the eastern side.  They were running toward the sunset, perhaps because the angle of the sun kept the Turned from sneaking up on them.”  He sighed.  “I thought they were traders, travelers like you guys, at first, but why park so far away from a village if you’re going to trade with it?”

Marlena nodded.  “When could you tell for sure they were attacking?”

“When they got these strange weapons from one of their carriages.  A long pole with a blade attached to the end.  I can’t imagine they’re any good against the Turned, but they sure were effective against the fences – and against the armored fighters, too.  They peeled open their suits like they were made of paper.”

“I’ve seen pictures of weapons like that.  They were used a long time ago, when men used to wear armor to fight against each other.  They’d use weapons on poles like that because someone with a sword could never get close to you if you had that.  The longer reach was an advantage.  It also made it easy to fight someone on a horse.”  She sighed.  “There’s a lot of that from before the Turned started to spread.  Humans didn’t have many natural enemies, so they fought each other.”

Jameson shrugged.  “Seems pretty silly to me, but people still fight each other nowadays, I suppose.  There’s still bandits out there.” His eyes scanned over the village again, but then he caught sight of something he’d missed before, and his eyes fixed on it, hard.  Near where the defenders were practicing was a wooden cage, and inside was a person.  Jameson couldn’t tell if they were male or female from that range, but he could tell they were infected.

Marlena noticed his gaze, and nodded.  “Yeah, almost every village has one, and sometimes they’ve got someone in them.  Sounds like he can still talk, though, so he must not be too far gone.”  Even at this range, the shouts from the cage were audible.

At that point, Jacob approached the carriage and called up to them.  “Marlena, Jameson… Lincoln would like you guys to come on in.”

The two looked at each other, exchanged surprised shrugs, then climbed down the ladder on the side of the carriage and followed Jacob back toward the gate.  As they approached, the defenders near the gate stiffened.  Jameson could feel their tension at a distance.  Lincoln was telling the village elders about them, and not to worry about them infecting anyone inside.  These comments were met with caution, but it was soon apparent that the elders had asked Lincoln his advice, and Lincoln had called on Marlena.  The elders looked over the pair, guardedly and untrusting, but then one of them nodded to the guards to relax.  She then pointed to the wooden cage.

“He’s been shouting like that every time we get visitors.” The woman shook her head.  “He came into the village yesterday at morning, telling us we should lock him up, because he was infected.  He’s been slowly turning, but he keeps telling us that as long as he can talk, that we shouldn’t burn him.  He says he’s got a message for his daughter, and he wants to give it to a traveler who’ll take it to her before he dies.”  She paused.  “But the rest of what he’s saying makes no sense at all.”

Marlena cocked an eyebrow, curiously, then turned toward the wooden cage.  Jameson followed her.  The two stood, looking at the man sitting on the ground, shaking his head and muttering to himself.

“They say you have a message for a daughter,” Marlena said.  She knelt down and looked at him.  “I can deliver your message, if you like.”  She lowered her glasses enough to show her eyes, and the man’s eyes went wide.

“No!  Don’t you touch my little girl!” he said.  “Just stay away from her!”

Marlena was patient, and didn’t budge.  “I don’t have to touch her to deliver your message.  And I won’t infect her.  Besides, you won’t have to worry about me getting killed by the Turned.  They ignore me.”

He stood, and came close to the bars of the cage. “Give her this,” he said, pulling a folded sheet of rough paper from a pocket and passing it through the bars.  “And help these people, too.  Tell them what I’ve found.  Go find it yourselves.  Bring it back, and share it here.  These people need it.”

Marlena cocked her head.  “What?  They need what?”

“My friends and I found it… the ancients had built a cave into the side of a hill, only a day away from here on foot, and inside, there’s…” his eyes grew distant.  “It’s incredible.  Such a wonderful find.”  He seemed to snap back to reality.  “My journal tells where it is, but I’ve lost it while trying to get here.  I think one of my friends had it when we were attacked by the Turned.”  His face, already turning grey with the infection, grew saddened.  “They turned so fast… I’ve never seen anyone turn that fast.  They were worms… no, they were whips…”  He put his hands on either side of his face.  “I don’t even know what I’m saying, my brain is dying…”  His eyes welled with tears, but he soon regained control.  His eyes bored in on Marlena again.

“My daughter, Sarah, lives in Carter’s Hill.  She needs to know what happened to me.  She’ll come looking for me if she doesn’t, and if she finds the bunker she’ll go inside, and she won’t survive.  You have to stop her from going in there.”

Marlena nodded.  “I know where Carter’s Hill is.  Where is the bunker you wanted us to find?”

He smiled again.  “My journal will lead you right to it.  But you’ll have to find Sandra, and I’m sure she’s dead.  She may come out of there, and she’ll be dressed like I am if she does, they gave us these clothes in Carter’s Hill so they could…” His voice trailed off.

Marlena smirked.  “So they could find you if you were Turned.”

He nodded.  “It’s to the south, just off a well-traveled road.  A small path leads right into the woods, and from there goes straight toward the hill.  You can see the tops of the buildings of an ancient city from that path, I remember seeing it.  But I don’t know which one.  It’s not far from here, though.  One day on horse, and I was Turning the whole time.  But find my Sarah.  Share what you find with her, and with these people, and everyone else.  It could help so many people, so many…” his hands reached toward his head again, and a confused look came over him.  “I think… I think…” he muttered, then turned away from them and walked across his cage until he bumped into the wooden bars on the other side.

Marlena turned to Jameson, then turned around to see that the village elders were not far behind her, watching curiously.

“He’s almost completely gone now,” she said.  “You should burn him- now.  It’s the merciful thing to do.”  She walked over to Lincoln, and the two exchanged a glance not unlike the one Jameson had seen at his first meeting with them.

*****

Svetlana had finished walking the perimeter of the village, and had lingered nearby the center of the village to overhear the two gypsies talking to the infected man in the cage.  She began walking again, taking in a few more details about the perimeter fence and how it was built, but wondering at what she’d heard.  There had been a group of them, and they had found an ancient building of some sort – a cave built into the side of a hill, the man had said.  When she’d first arrived, he’d shouted at her to help him, but she had ignored him.  Now, however, the primary purpose of her mission was complete, and she let her mind wander.

A building of the ancients could be a treasure trove of wonderful, forgotten things, but could just as easily be a death trap.  For whatever reason, the ancients had been very good at building large buildings with lots of dark places for the Turned to hide in through the day.  It was a great risk to go into one of them, even with a dozen flame weapons, because there could easily be hundreds of the dead waiting for you.  But this one in particular might be worth it – this man had been raving for days about a treasure he’d found.  Would it be worth the risk of going in after it?

And even if they did retrieve it, would they be able to make use of it?  Many tools of the ancients could not be made to work, for some reason or another.  The studious members of her Order said something about energy to make them operate, but their explanations were way over her head.

The potential use to the Order was one thing, but just as important, she knew, was the potential these villages would get.  No matter what it was, if it made the villagers better able to fight the Turned, it would make the purpose of the Order that much more difficult to achieve.  And it wasn’t humanity’s place to dispute the fate that the Creator had arranged for them.  It was clear how the human race was meant to meet its end, and the less suffering these people felt in the process, the better.

The thing that Svetlana had the hardest part coping with was the fact that these people were still having children.  Of course the order was still making children and raising them- she was proof of this herself- but this was done to reach the order’s goal.  These villagers and townspeople had no plan, no goals, other than to live through another day and make more children.  These children would be made to suffer, and greatly, before the end… why bring a child into a world where a dead body had a better-than-even chance of standing up and trying to eat you?  Why have children at all when you know that half of them will be painfully killed before they reach their tenth birthday?  Why create a life, especially a life you will love as a parent loves, all the while knowing that they could be eaten alive?

And again, she felt the great, overwhelming sadness and empathy for the people she was amongst.  They hadn’t chosen this; their parents chose it for them, just as they chose it for their children, and if they lived long enough those children would reproduce as well.  This is all they knew.  It was all the human race really knew; at the heart of it, the only thing the human race did well was to reproduce, and spread like a virus.  The Creator knew this, and saw the magnitude of his own mistake, and set in motion a correction.  The human race would eventually be extinct, and then the Turned would eventually die off, unable to find new hosts, and then whatever plan the Creator had for the Earth could move on to the next step.  Hopefully with more success, Svetlana hoped – however the Creator happened to measure ‘success’.  That was beyond her understanding.  What was within her understanding was her place in life, her purpose in being; to help with the extermination of the human race.

Back to the present, she thought.  She returned to the house she’d be sleeping at- due to the kind heart of its owner and the coins of steel she’d used for trade- and sat on the front porch, watching the sun set.  As it disappeared over the treetops, she heard the unmistakable sounds of the Turned approaching the village, as they did every night.  They pounded against the fences, trying in vain to pull it down or force it to fall.  The noise they made was unnerving to her still- even having listened to it every night for the past month.  Seven different villages just like this one, and each one almost the same.  The defenders at each were fairly well trained, which was a concern for both her and for the Inner Circle; better defenders meant that larger teams would need to be dispatched, and increased the likelihood that they’d be killed, even if they accomplished their missions.  They’d die gladly, and valorously, of course.  It was the fate of all humans to die, they were taught and told over and over- each person has only to decide the manner of their departure.  But even if it made complete the spiritual journeys of those sent to attack the village, the sheer numbers made the mission of the Order that much harder to attain.  And a team that survived its mission could be sent on another mission.  If the Order had enough warriors to send a team to every village all at the same time, it would have been done a long time ago.  No, the Order had to take steps to make sure its members returned from their missions as often as possible.

Which is why Svetlana was here, of course.  Knowledge of the defenses would be invaluable during an assault, and underestimating the soldiers would certainly result in failure.  These people were as committed to the continuation of their lives as she and the Order were intent on making those lives end.  They were well-practiced, she saw, and well-equipped.  They trained well into the evening, and it seemed a couple of the soldiers were semi-professional; their other tasks about the village had been reduced to allow them to train more.  This village had a decent armor-smith, she had noticed at once, and while there were only about a dozen defenders who had a full suit of armor, this was most likely due to the village not being able to afford more steel.  Many other villages would trade for the armor their defenders wore.  That had to be a heavy question on the minds of the village leaders, she thought; Do we trade our meager surplus for food or supplies that we need, or seeds to plant for more food- or for steel so we can adequately defend ourselves?  She was glad that no such decisions rested on her shoulders.  No, her life was very straightforward- help to bring about the end of the human race.  And her part in that mission was just as simple- gather as much information as possible on the state of each village’s defenses.

She’d been gifted at this, her superiors had noticed at once.  Even though she had been born in the Compound, she had adjusted easily to being inside of villages and not being noticed.  She’d helped the destruction of dozens of villages in this manner, and the council had placed at least some trust in her judgment.  Her recommendations had been followed at least twice, and had turned out for the best both of those times.  Hopefully, they would trust her judgment this time as well.

Something about that man’s story buzzed in the back of her mind.  She couldn’t tell why, but this story was something that the Order should follow up on, even if it wasn’t her.  Someone needed to look into this- if nothing else, she needed to report it back.  If they’d heard other rumors about this ancient cave, her story may corroborate what they’d learned.  She couldn’t know what else they’d heard, so all she had was her instinct, and her instinct was telling her what to do very clearly.

Cut your mission short, and report back to the Great Rock.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: