The Turned – Chapter 10

“Again, your efforts have proven most valuable to us, Svetlana,” Garjia said, sitting directly across from her.  Her face looked friendly, her eyes betraying a hint of anticipation.  Outwardly, she was the most average, plain-looking woman Svetlana had ever seen, but underneath was a sharp mind and great strength.  “Thank you again for risking yourself for our cause.  Please give us your report.”

Svetlana inclined her head, thanking the council for their complement.  Then she took a deep breath.  She had no idea how they would react to the news she brought.

“I was able to contact both of the hidden agents within the city of Carter’s Hill,” she said, forcing herself to speak slowly.  “As you all know, they have placed themselves in such way that almost every event in Carter’s Hill is known to them, even the intimate plans of the leadership.  And as you also know, they have extended the offer of- well, they call it ‘alliance’, but in reality it will be subservience- to seven villages.  These appear to be all they plan to add for now.  And as you suspected, they have no plans to allow the villages to turn down their offers.  They have built up enough soldiers now to not only defend each of these villages, but to invade them if necessary.  So far their offer has only been accepted by one village, and outright refused by only two.  Soldiers are already being sent out to defend the one, and others are prepared to attack the refusing villages.  The population problem at Carter’s Hill is being effectively used as an advantage; they are offering some of the crowded common people the chance to build a much better place to live in these villages, and there is no shortage of people willing to sign up for the Army now.  How they will implement these privileges remains to be seen.

“My other assignment was to gather information regarding a discovery that we had heard of.”  Here she paused.  This would be the awkward part.  “Both my contacts indicated that these discoveries have not been made, and that the emissaries from Carter’s Hill have been lying about a new perimeter wall.”

Walthiar shrugged his shoulders.  “Even our contacts there, with as much as they hear, may have missed this.”

Svetlana shook her head.  “My apologies, councilor, but I was unclear.  Our contacts did not say they had not heard of a discovery being made.  They have heard all about it.  What they have heard is that this discovery has not been brought back to Carter’s Hill.  The initial team of explorers was killed by the Turned, all except for one they had sent back with a message.  The follow-up team they have sent has so far not been able to find the location again.  They have heard for certain that the details about the discovery are false.”

The councilors were silent for a moment.  Cheszalt, who sat on the left edge of their line, finally spoke.

“They said that the new system has some sort of weakness that they could use to destroy one of these walls.  Have you discovered that secret?”

Svetlana shook her head.  “No, councilor.  Since the leadership of Carter’s Hill still hasn’t even had a chance to see the discovery, there’s no way they could have found a weakness in it.  My thinking, and our agents agree, that they are lying to these villages, or plan to, about this weakness.  They want to use that fear as a way of keeping the villagers in line.  Until they’ve actually got the discovery in their hands, they can’t possibly know it’s weaknesses.”

The councilor cocked his head to one side.  “But a messenger returned to Carter’s Hill to report back to them.  It’s possible that he carried word of this weakness, even if they don’t know precisely what it is.”

Svetlana was silent.  They weren’t understanding her, or they didn’t want to.  The agents she had talked to were confident on their information- and if the council wasn’t going to listen to their reports, then why bother having them out there in the first place?

Cheszalt turned his head to look at the rest of the council.  “We must absolutely discover this weakness, brothers and sisters.  If they do recover this discovery, whatever it is, we must know how to defeat it.”  He returned his gaze to Svetlana.  “We need you to find this discovery, and determine its weakness.  If you can, bring it here- it may be something we can make use of, as well.”  The rest of the council nodded their approval.  “We are authorizing you to do whatever you feel necessary, to accomplish this.  Dresten will provide you with a fresh mount, and whatever supplies you feel you need.  This is of the utmost importance, Svetlana.”  He paused, and leaned forward.  “Time out in the rest of the world can bring doubt in our mission.  We’ve seen it in many scouts before.  But you have remained very faithful to us, and that is the main reason we continue sending you out like this.  You believe in our mission, just as we do.  Your knowledge could be relayed to another member of the Order, and your mission passed on, but your skill and devotion make you the perfect choice to continue these missions.  Relax for the evening, and rest well tonight.  You’ll need to leave at first light.”

*****

Almost all of her old instructors were gone, she finally realized. She had wandered around the teaching area of the compound for almost the entire afternoon, and while she passed several of her old training-mates, and while she saw many young students practicing their combat arts or engrossed in their studies, not one of the men or women she had trained under was to be found.  She exchanged warm embraces with the people she recognized, and greeted those she did not, as she wandered from one class to another.  Finally, as she passed by the main combat training hall for the fourth time, she spotted an old man leaving by the far door.  She had to jog to catch up to him, and he turned at the sound of her steps.

“Svetlana, am I right?” he said.  His voice was raspier now, his face much older, and his hands had spots on the skin, but his eyes were the same.  Green, bright, and penetrating.  He wore the traditional robe worn by the combat instruction master, complete with the white sash around his waist.

“Yes, Idzac, it is,” she said.  She risked giving him an embrace, which may be taken as a lack of respect for a higher rank, but the embrace was returned.

“I’ve heard great things of you,” he said, turning to walk with her down hallway.  “You’re not here often, though.  If you have some time to tell me of your travels and your missions, I would enjoy hearing about it.  Not many of my advanced students have been coming back to see me.”

Svetlana had to smirk.  The advanced combat students almost always ended up going out into the field to fight for a year or two, and those that survived would return to train the new students.  “I haven’t been able to find any of my old teachers.  Have they been retiring?”

To the Order, retirement was what older members did when they felt they could no longer give enough to the community.  It almost always meant suicide of one sort or another.

His eyes changed.  “No, no, the council has been placing new instructors lately.  Instead of waiting for the teachers to retire on their own, they’ve been ordering it.  For three years now.  And the process is all but complete now.  I am outside that process, and to be honest, I’m lucky I’ve lasted as long as I have.”

She shook her head.  “You were the best of the instructors when I was growing up here, Idzac.  It’s no accident that you’re senior combat instructor now.  Your teachings have kept us alive, all of us that went into the wild.”

He smiled, crookedly.  “You didn’t think I was the best instructor when you were in my classes.”

She laughed.  “That was before I realized how tough the outside world would be.  You were doing your best to prepare us, and it meant being tough.”

He nodded, then drew a long breath and sighed.  “This place is changing, Svetlana.  Being out in the wild has meant you didn’t see it happening.”  He shrugged.  “Then again, had you not become a scout, you would most likely have been placed on an attack team, and have died in a fight a long time ago.”

She nodded.  That was a fact she rarely dwelt on.  She did her job as a scout, and fighters did their jobs.  Neither one was more dangerous than the others, really… Svetlana thought of herself as cautious and lucky, in equal amounts.

“They’ve changed some of the lesson plans here,” he said.  “I haven’t been teaching them- our combat lessons don’t change- but I’ve heard the younger ones talking, and they say different things.  They have different teachings now.  They’re not bringing up fighters to help the Creator’s end of humanity, to help bring about the end.  These students are being taught how to be part of an empire of the chosen, not the instrument of the Creator that you have been brought up to believe in.”

Her expression had darkened.  She had, just hours before, listened to the council praise her faith in their mission and her dedication to the Creator’s plan.  Hearing anyone say such things about the councilors confused her.  The council was the guardian of this mission, ultimately responsible for their part in the Creator’s plan.  “Why would the council allow that?”

He shrugged.  “I’m only making an observation- they’ve made a great change to what our young students are being brought up to believe.  Add to that your own observation- that most of the old instructors are now gone- and it does present an uncomfortable possibility.”

She stopped in her tracks.  After a few steps, he turned to face her.

“No,” she said, quietly.  “I can’t believe they would deviate from our mission in such a way.”

“I don’t know what it is they are doing, Svetlana.”  He folded his hands before him.  “What I do know is this- you should be cautious.  If they are really making a change like this, then all those that would present resistance to it would be an obstacle to them.  And to be honest, there’s not many of us, taught the old ways, that are left.  Certainly not enough to stop them.”

That thought made the hair on her neck stand up.  “After all the work we’ve done for them, they wouldn’t repay us in such a way.”

“They are human, like every one of us, and they go through the same daily battles within their own hearts.  They are just as strong- or weak,” he said, his eyebrows rising, “as we are.  And I’m sure they don’t see the world the same way we do.”

Whatever their plans, their intentions, or their loyalties, Svetlana thought to herself, I know what my purpose is in life.

*****

Katrick finished his drink and left Regis’s inn, waving to Jody as he left. The sky was dark, but in Tarense, that didn’t mean everyone locked themselves inside.  The perimeter here was strong enough to keep the Turned out easily, and it had been many years since the wall had been breached.  It made people overconfident, which was probably a weakness, but the guards were well-trained and watchful.  This didn’t affect Katrick directly; to him, it merely meant that he could still wander around and possibly meet with a few friends after dark.

Not far from the gate to the mine level, he did see someone familiar, but calling her a friend would have been a stretch.  Xeren was groomed very nicely, in a dress that accented her body.  Her red hair was loose, and the breeze toyed with it.  She was walking arm-in-arm with a young man that Katrick could instantly tell was not infected.  This made Katrick a little angry with her, and he followed them, catching up to them just as they were about to enter another small inn.

“Be careful, son, or you might end up infected,” he called.  The pair turned- outraged shock on the face of the young man, but instant recognition on hers.

“Katrick, why must you spoil my fun?” she asked, sweetly.  The young man looked at her, mouth open, then withdrew his arm.  She shrugged at him, and he turned to disappear into the night.

Katrick came closer.  “Out spreading yourself again, Xeren?”

“Ooooo,” she breathed, pouting and smiling at the double-entendre.  “You know, he might have turned out to be Immune.”  Her eyes were always deceptive; just as they’d deceived that young man.  They didn’t show a trace of the infection, and neither did her skin.  Katrick could feel it, could sort of smell the infection in her, but most people wouldn’t know until it was too late.  Her clear blue eyes looked up at him, playful and challenging at the same time.  This woman was dangerous, he had to remind himself.

He smirked, mirthlessly.  “Some people call it murder when you do that, you know.”

She shrugged again, innocently.  “They don’t hesitate to murder us, you know.”

“And that makes it right?”

“What if they were to declare a war on us, and no one showed up to stop them?” she challenged him.  “Because it’s already happened, Katrick.”

“Not here.  And that young man isn’t someone who wants to kill us.”

“He’s visiting here from Carter’s Hill,” she said.  “He’s training to be one of their soldiers, and was sent here with the trade mission.  He and his team are buying steel that will be used to fight us later on.”  She paused, cocking her head to one side and putting her hands on her hips, which accented her body shape even more.  She did that on purpose.  “Do you really think that I just pick people at random?  I’ve put thought into this, too- a lot more than you have, apparently, or you’d be helping us fight them.”  She stepped closer to him.  “You know, if you would just come to bed with me, I wouldn’t have to seek out pleasure like this.”

That was worthy of a snort.  “Very classy, Xeren.”

She folded her arms, and took another step closer.  “So, I hear Symon is going to ask you and some others to go out that way, and find out about this big discovery they’re all talking about.”

He shrugged.  “He hasn’t asked me anything yet.  I’ve just been out finding things out.”

“Uh huh.  Finding out that Carter’s Hill is about to triple in size, and that they’re already starting to call up a new army.  This discovery is just a little piece in the puzzle.  What the hell could they have discovered that would make such a difference?”

“Why don’t you go ask them?” he replied.  “And what makes you think they’re calling up a new army?”

“They’ve got to police all these villages somehow.  And Jannise tells me that Carter’s Hill is offering big living space and pretty money to any armor-smith or weaponsmith that will come to work for them.  They’ve doubled the number of smiths they have just in the past month.  They’re working two shifts until they can build another armory for them.  Now, I had always thought that they had plenty of armor around there, so why start building up a store of armor and weapons?  The food rations they’ve set aside for their soldiers increased, and rewards for ‘loyal behavior’ are being announced.  Sounds to me like they’re buying loyalty from the soldiers, and giving people a good reason to join up.”  She paused for a moment.  “Or do you have a better explanation.”

“No, that sounds precisely like something they’d do.”  He sighed.  “Look, you know I feel the same way about the Cartersons, but our quarrel is with the city’s leadership, not its regular people.  The soldiers, like you just said, are bought and paid for, not truly hateful toward us.  They’re just people, and your little terrorism campaign isn’t doing anything but proving the Cartersons right about us.  Besides, what are you going to do- sleep with every single soldier they send up here?”

“Hrm, the thought’s crossed my mind,” she said, with a teasing smile on her lips.  “Certainly would be a good way to separate the men from the boys, in more ways than one.”

“I’m sorry I said anything,” he replied, dryly.

“What if I told you that some friends of mine are going to come with me down to Carter’s Hill and pick a fight?” she asked, half-innocently.  The other half was pure malice.  His blood chilled for a moment as he wondered precisely what sort of fight she meant.  If she was willing to sleep with the enemy to infect him, there wouldn’t be many things she wouldn’t do.

“What if we found out where this discovery was at, and made it disappear for good?  We could just make sure no one ever finds it, and that way no one makes use of it.  The Turned continue to break into villages and eat people, and pretty soon, we Immune will be the only ones truly alive anymore.”

“You sound just like the Believers,” he said.  She scoffed at this.

“The Believers did get a few things right- one of which is that normal humans weren’t meant to survive this.”

“What do you think Symon would think of your plan?” he asked.  “Because you know I’m going to tell him about this conversation.  You might as well have said all this to him yourself.”

She scoffed again.  “Symon is an idiot, and if he really understood people he’d be doing the same thing I am.  Well,” she smirked, “maybe not the exact same thing.  But he can’t even bring himself to accuse me, and he certainly can’t bring himself to order anyone to stop me.”

He doesn’t have to order us, Katrick’s mind whispered.

*****

This time, Walter remembered his name instantly. “Marion, you come to us again!  And welcome back, Sarah.”

They both smiled, then looked for a table.  His smile turned to a bit of surprise when he noticed their company- especially the amount of it.  Almost everyone in the caravan came in behind them, and together they would fill up more than half the room.

“Well, my friends, you certainly do lead an interesting life- but you’re bringing me plenty of business, so I won’t complain!”  He brought two glasses up to the bar, and began filling them.  “The first drinks, for you two, are on the house, and if these are all friends of yours, then I can afford to let you drink for free all night!”

At that point, Lincoln had come into earshot.  “If your ale has improved any, it might be a worthy trade,” he said, shaking the inkeeper’s hand.

“Aha, Lincoln, good to see you again.”  Walter looked around.  “Yes, now that I get a look at them, these are all your families, aren’t they?  Is Grunnel with you still?  I haven’t seen him since just after his daughter arrived.”

Lincoln turned, and pointed at a far table where Grunnel and Lavender sat, with their little girl on a chair between them.  Her nose was almost level with the table-top, but not quite.  The two parents were smiling as their little girl jabbered.  Her choices of words had gotten clearer, but was still adorable in the way of a child still learning to express themselves.

“And how about your son, Walter?” Lincoln asked.

This made the innkeeper shake his head.  “He was killed, Lincoln.  Taken by the Turned.”

Lincoln put his hand on the man’s shoulder.  “I’m sorry to hear that.  When, and how?”

Walter took a deep breath, and steadied himself.  “It was a year or so ago, Lincoln, and he died well.  He was a fighter, and he saved the lives of three other people that night.  Of course I miss him, but it was a sacrifice he was ready for, and it was his choice.  I’m proud of him.”

Lincoln nodded.  “An honorable death.”  He clapped the inkeeper on the shoulder.  “Let us know when you’re ready for a big food order.  We remember your place well enough to come here hungry.”

Walter’s eyes twinkled again.  “Now, that is something I love to hear.  Stella,” he called into the kitchen area, “hope you’ve got the oven warmed up!”

She came out into the room, wiping her hands on a small towel, then looked up to find that her dining room was close to full.  She blinked in surprise, then smiled warmly when she began to recognize the faces.  “Well, now, I can warm it up quickly enough!”

“There is something you ought to know about, Walter.”  Lincoln said, his voice growing quieter.  “I don’t expect it to matter to you so much, because I know you, and I know what kind of man you are.  But we’re guests here, and its good manners.”  He leaned closer to the innkeeper.  “We have a pair of the Immune here with us tonight.”

Walter gave Lincoln an amused look.  “You know I’m not so much bothered by that, Lincoln.  There’s plenty of people around here that would get upset, but I don’t care.”

Lincoln shrugged.  “That’s what I knew you’d say.  But it’s still better for you to hear it from me, now, than to be surprised by it later on.”

*****

Everyone had eaten, and for a good while they stayed to talk and relax, and spend some time somewhere besides the inside of their carriages.  But eventually the children began to get bleary-eyed, and many of the parents and older children took them back to bed.  By the time the stars were all visible, the “council” was all that was left, with Sarah, Marion, Jameson and Marlena joining them.

“I’m sorry to hear about your father, Sarah,” Lincoln said.  “From what you’ve told us, he was a great man.”

Sarah nodded.  “He was so driven to help the people around him.  On three of his missions, in addition to the work the Cartersons had assigned him, he scouted out new locations for what have become villages.  He saw the overcrowding a long time ago, and started trying to ease the pressure.  And now, it seems, the Cartersons have caught on.”  She shook her head.  “They could have helped with the hard work of getting the places established, but it was too risky for them.  Now, the hard part is over, and here they come.”

Leon Richards spoke quietly.  “That makes sense, though.  I’m sure the Cartersons had never stopped thinking of those villagers as ‘their people’.  This sounds just like something they’d do.”

“Well, whatever it is that your father discovered, I hope it’s as great a help as he thought it would be,” Kevin Jennings said.  “It could sure make a difference, and not just to the villages around here.”

“He wasn’t one to make wild claims,” she said.  “If he was as excited about it as Marion said he was, then I’m sure he found something incredible.”

Lincoln nodded.  “Well, it makes little sense for us all to go.  Take Marlena and Jameson with you.  If you were to take four of the horses and just ride there, you could go three times faster.  You’ll have plenty of time to return here before dark.  It sounds like the place itself is too dangerous for you two to go into,” he nodded to Sarah and Marion, who agreed, “but these two won’t be in any real danger in there.”

There was quiet for a few moments, and then Marion looked over at Grunnel.  “You look like someone more at home as a drill-master.  How did you come to be part of a gypsy troupe?”

The large man took a deep breath.  “I was a drill-master, a long time ago.  My family held four generations of sword-masters and defenders.  When I was twenty-one, my home was over-run by the Turned, and they killed everyone there except for me.  Some of the younger fighters had lost control of their flame weapons, and set fire to one of the houses.  I stayed close enough to the flame that I only had to worry about a few of them at a time.  I fought them all night, and when the sun came up, I saw them march away.  Everyone else had died – even my bride-to-be.”  He paused for a moment.  “The next day, Lincoln and his carriages rolled up to the gate, hoping to trade, but finding only me.”

Marion didn’t know how to respond.  Lincoln spoke up for him.  “Life is dangerous everywhere, and no one really knows how much time they have left.  We do what we can with the time we have.”

“Hear, hear!” Leon Richards called out.  Everyone raised their drinks.

Grunnel took a deep drink, then set his glass back down.  “They took good care of me.  I was in shock for some time after that, but they gave me a reason to live again.  They became my family, a place to belong, even if that place moves around all the time.  And I would do anything to protect them.”

That earned a chuckle from Jacob McCandles.  “Yeah, he’s proven that without a doubt.”

Sarah looked among the faces of the others, and seeing the smiles, she said, “Uh, oh.  That sounded ominous.”

Everyone chuckled at that.  Eyes began to turn to Lincoln, who gestured them back to Jacob.  “You started it, son, you better finish it.”

Jacob smiled, and cleared his throat.  “This was a while ago- Grunnel’s been part of this troupe since I was a little kid- but maybe 8 years ago, maybe 7, we were attacked by a small pack of bandits on the road not far from Tarense.  I’m sure they were waiting for us, but apparently they hadn’t gotten a look at Grunnel, because when he came out to meet them, they could tell how big their mistake was.  They had wounded one of us, I think it was Owen- his family doesn’t travel with us anymore- and when Grunnel came out, he was just furious.  Now, this man is big, okay, but when he’s in his armor, he looks a lot bigger.  And he went after them without his helmet on.  He wanted them to see how mad he was.”

He paused for a moment, looking across the table at Grunnel, who seemed both proud and embarrassed to hear the story.  “You need to understand, these people meant to hurt us, and didn’t seem to care that they’d almost killed Owen.  Grunnel didn’t just kill them, he butchered them.  The first one he fought, he knocked the sword out of the guy’s hand, shoulder-bashed him against a tree, and then pinned him there with his own sword.  And that guy was the lucky one.” Jacob shook his head.  “I’ve never seen someone fight like that, before or since.  It seemed like all that pent-up frustration just came out all at once.”

Jacob chuckled then.  “And the best part- the best part was that we were all out of our carriages, watching this.  Grunnel against six men, and he just tears them apart.  He let a seventh go- or he just didn’t get to him in time to keep him from escaping, I don’t know- but here’s all these dead bandits on the road, and Grunnel standing in the middle of them, there’s blood all over his arms and his sword, some on his face, some in his hair, and he turns around to look at us, still catching his breath, and he just looks like some unleashed demon.  And the only one of us who could speak was Leon,” he motioned across the table again, to where Leon was smiling wide, “who gave the best summary of what we had just seen.  He said, ‘We really need to get this man laid.’”

At that point, Sarah and Jameson both exploded with laughter.  Marion, who had been taking a drink of his ale, spat it out in a spray that doused the last of the bread on his plate.

*****

Cole was at the assembly area before any of his soldiers were. He meant to be- he felt the officer should always be the first to show up.  And with what the Cartersons had promised him, the bonuses for his new post, he was glad to be there, even though the sun had just started coming up.  The Turned were just starting to clear away from the gate.  He looked out at them, from a safe distance, and found himself wondering what they did when they were alive.  Each of those walking corpses out there, he told himself, was a person at one point.  They were certainly dead, he knew this without a doubt, but what had they done with their life?  He’d seen a few Turned children, and they had horrified him even more than he thought possible.  At this point in his life, he had pretty much seen everything he thought possible, and nothing the Turned could do would shock him.

His soldiers began to arrive, one at a time or in pairs, and as the sun came over the treetops, they were formed up and ready to march.  They kept their weapons handy, certainly, but their armor was packed up into kits, loaded onto the wagon that would follow them.  They wouldn’t need the armor during the day.

Also among their supplies were all the tools they’d need to build a new barracks.  Eventually they would all have homes, they knew.  It was part of their bonus for moving out of the safe walls around Carter’s Hill.  The wood they could get from trees near their new village.

The men formed a double-line, and marched out into the dawn swiftly and smartly.  Cole was proud to be leading them.  A few family members had come to see them off, but overall, the city was quiet.  The surrounding countryside was quieter still.

That quiet was disturbed when twenty men on horseback formed up in the court just inside the gate.  With a shout from their officer, they charged outside, just behind Cole’s formation, and galloped down the road past them.  The road forked ahead of them, and he watched the riders take the left side, whereas he and his men would march to the right.  Cole shrugged to himself.  His wouldn’t be the only mission for the defenders of Carter’s Hill that day, and he only knew his own small part.  His mission was a good one.  He’d be protecting other people, which is what he tried to do all his life, even before he joined this militia.

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