The Turned – Chapter 7

Jameson couldn’t stop looking upward. His horse picked its way through the rubble and underbrush, and he felt one of the bushes slide past his leg as he went by.  He was thankful that he had ridden instead of walking, because he would have tripped a dozen times by now.

Marlena, atop her brown and white horse, was leading him between some of the tallest buildings he’d ever seen.  She’d talked to him most of the way here, but now she was quiet, letting him stare up at them.  Even destroyed by years of neglect and discolored by weather, they were magnificent.  Jameson had never seen trees even half as tall, let alone anything man-made.  Many retained some of their color, and many seemed to be carved out of rocks.  The ground felt hard under his horse’s feet, and when he looked closer it looked as though there was grey or black stone, broken apart by grasses and small plants that forced their way upward.  There were rusted metal poles where streets met, and metal boxes of many different shapes in front of buildings.  Marlena couldn’t tell him what many of the things he saw had been meant for.

“How could they have built such tall things?” he asked.

Marlena only shrugged.  “They wrote books about everything, and I’m sure many were written on how to build things like this.  It’s just a matter of finding the right books, I guess.”

He looked over at her.  “Sierra Jennings said you’ve found buildings that were only meant for books.”

She nodded.  “Yeah.  That’s one thing we’re here looking for.”

“Then it shouldn’t be too hard to find a book explaining how they built all this.”

“True, but most of the books you’ll find are in the same condition as these buildings,” she replied.  She looked up at one of the metal poles, then turned her horse down a different street.

It was about then, Jameson remembered later, that he began to feel their presence.  It wasn’t like when the troupe was attacked, but something inside him was recognizing the wandering dead that still lived in the city.  They hid in buildings that still had roofs, looking and smelling for anything they could eat to extend their lives, coming out at night because the city had literally been picked over completely.  Then, to his surprise, he could feel them under his feet.

Marlena nodded when he told her.  “Yes, they had some buildings underground- tunnels they’d dug.  I don’t know why.  There’s lots of places all over this town that have stairs down into it.  I haven’t been too far into them- maybe someday I’ll go down there.”

“Why haven’t you?”

“Never been in the mood to, really.” She shrugged again.  “I don’t like being underground for very long.  I don’t know why.”  She looked up at one of the buildings in particular, then dismounted and walked toward it.  There were stairs up to the front doors, with a railing made of metal bars on either side.  She tethered her horse to it, then waited for Jameson to do the same.

The building was in worse shape than many of those around it, but the roof was mostly intact.  The doors in front had all been made of glass, it seemed, but had shattered a long time ago.  Inside it was dim, but not dark, and the mid-day sun’s light pushed its way in through holes here and there in the walls.  It wasn’t quite bright enough to drive the Turned out, and they saw one or two moving around from the entrance.

Jameson also saw thousands of books.  The ceiling was twice his height, he guessed, and there were stairs leading to both upper and lower floors, but everywhere he looked were shelves filled with books.  Many of them – most, he saw, upon looking closer- showed signs of weather-damage.  With windows broken and holes in the roof and walls, there was nothing to keep the winter air and blowing snow out, and he supposed a few hundred years of exposure would do a lot of damage to paper.

They walked inwards, away from the broken windows, looking for books that might still be legible and useful.  Marlena looked over the shelves, glazing over most of the books because of their condition, but picked a few out here and there to inspect.  Jameson looked around a bit himself, but almost all the books were unreadable; the pages had all gelled into one piece on most of them, and the ink had run to gibberish on the rest.

“So how many people out there are there like us?” he asked.

She glanced up at him, with a small smirk.  “There’s some.  Not too many, but they tend to look for each other.  I guess for the same reason normal people do it; nobody really likes being alone for too long.  Some villages out there don’t seem to mind people who are immune, but plenty of them will drive us out or destroy us.”

“So if they gather together, where do they gather?”

“Tarense has a handful living there.  The people there aren’t too trusting, but they are willing to give others a chance.”

“Lincoln mentioned someone named Symon once.  Who is that?”

Marlena put the book she was looking through under her arm, then picked another off the shelf.  “Symon was already starting to age when he was infected.  He’s a decent man, but he’s taken on quite a burden; he’s trying to keep up good relations between the Immune and normal people.”

Jameson looked over at her.  She flipped through a few pages of her book, then put it back on the shelf.  She then pulled down another, and opened it.  When she looked up at him, his expression told her that he hadn’t fully understood.

“Do you remember what you did when I let you out of your cage?”

He nodded.  “I was angry then.  I wish I hadn’t, looking back.”

She turned her eyes back to the book she held.  “There’s a lot of people who find that they’re immune, then find their families and friends trying to kill them.  In fact, that’s usually what happens.  This tends to make people angry and more often than not, vengeful.  Not just at their own village, but at normal people everywhere.  There’s plenty of the immune out there who wouldn’t care if normal people were wiped out by the Turned.  And not a few of them have decided to make that happen- or happen faster.”

Jameson didn’t know what to say to that.  He merely watched her scan through the book, put it back on the shelf, then grab another.  She looked up at him before opening it.

“I know how that makes me feel, but what do you think about it?”

He shook his head.  “That’s wrong, and it’s just plain cruel.  To take out your revenge on people who had nothing to do with you?”

She made a small grimace.  “I agree.  And fortunately, Symon does, too.  The greater problem, of course, is that those few who do take out their anger on normal people in general have another effect… they make a lot of normal people want to hunt us all down and exterminate us.  Of course, a lot of those angry Immune don’t care.  Some of them have even got it in their heads that we are meant to survive the infection, and normal people aren’t- that we’re supposed to inherit the earth, or something like that.”  She chuckled.  “As if anyone alive anywhere is really entitled to anything.”

He nodded, then pulled another book off the shelf in front of him.  It was in fairly good condition; the pages separated easily, and the ink was mostly intact.  He closed it, and held it up for her to see.

“This one might be worth taking,” he said.  She peered at it for a moment.

“The Master Handbook of Acoustics,” she said, shaking her head.  “I don’t think we’ll have much use for that one.  As a rule, if neither of us can tell right away what a book is about, it’s probably not going to be worth bringing it out of here.”  He nodded, and returned it to its shelf.  “They grouped them together by subject most of the time, so try a different area.”

“I can’t read very well, so I’ll probably hold up a bunch of books we won’t want to take back.”  He walked down another row, and was out of sight of Marlena when she replied.

“It’s just a matter of practice, like everything else.  And besides, all this stuff was important enough to someone.  Otherwise, they wouldn’t have taken the time to write it down.”

*****

Svetlana returned to the carriages just before the sun began setting. She had about an hour before the Turned would come out of their shadows, but still she hurried.  Dresten saw her coming across the field.  He turned to give orders to the others, who began moving the horses into their carriage.  By the time she arrived, the animals were safely enclosed, with enough food and water to pass the night in relative comfort.

In great comfort compared to being eaten, anyway.

Her sister in the Order, Odyna, opened the side door to the second carriage for her.  “News?”

“News.  Not all of it the sort we’re seeking, but we’ll need to take action on it.”

The five of them sat around the dining table of the carriage.  Svetlana looked around the carriage as she ate her meal, chewing slowly.  Her attention was often drawn to the pounding of dead fists on the outside of the wooden box they had locked themselves into.  Someone in the Order had seen gypsies travel like this, but getting used to the noise that persisted all night long was beyond her.  She would have trouble sleeping again tonight.

“As far as our mission goes, I believe the explorers we’re searching for passed through here,” Svetlana said, ‘here’ meaning the village she had visited during the day.  “Aside from gypsies, there aren’t many travelers through here.  They didn’t stop here for the night, but they did take a meal.  Nothing unusual as far as that goes.”

Dresten gave her a confused look.  “Then why the urgency?”

“Something else happened while I was there.  Just after I came in, three men on horseback came in the gate, wearing swords and chest-armor.  Not dressed for battle of any sort, but displaying strength, was my impression.  Their clothing was very wealthy, and the horses were large.  They came from Carter’s Hill, they said, and I believe their job was to impress the local people.

“They addressed the village from the square, and were talking about a discovery their masters had made, a way of building walls to take the place of perimeter fences.  Walls that would be strong, as if they were made of solid stone.  They were offering an arrangement to the village- not to the elders, but directly to the people.  Subservience for protection, effectively; they’d build this wall for them, and train soldiers for them, but the village would have to send its surplus crops to Carter’s Hill as a tax.  There’s more involved, I’m sure, but that’s the basic plan.”

Dresten leaned back in his chair, his eyes drifting upward as he absorbed the information.  “Carter’s Hill is expanding.”  He looked back to Svetlana.  “What do you think the chances are that this newly-discovered building idea is from the same place we’re seeking?”

“It’s too great a coincidence,” she replied, nodding.  “And there’s something else they mentioned.  One of the villagers called out a question- they asked what would happen if the village changed its mind later on, after the wall was built.  The diplomats replied that along with the discovery of how the wall is built, there was also a way to take the walls apart, easily and quickly.  Something that makes the walls not just fall apart, but dissolve.”

Dresten’s eyebrows rose.  “Interesting.”  He looked back toward the ceiling.  “It wouldn’t be something as simple as water; that works on clay bricks, but I doubt they’d suggest for a perimeter wall something that would behave like that.  The first rainstorm would destroy the entire thing.  They only use clay for floors because of that.”  He thought quietly for a moment, then shrugged.  “Well, without knowing what the walls would be built of, we can’t possibly guess what their weakness is.”

Svetlana leaned forward.  “Yes, but Dresten, we must absolutely find out what this weakness is.  If they’re able to build such a strong wall around a village, our assaults upon them would be fruitless.  We may be able to enter, and kill a few of the defenders, but our ability to make them vulnerable to the Turned would be gone.”

He nodded, still looking at the ceiling.  Then, suddenly, he shrugged again, and said, “Well, we can speculate all we want, but in the end our job is to report back our findings.  The real decisions will be made at the Compound.  Odyna, you’ll return there tomorrow to report.  We’ll move the carriages in the morning, to keep hidden, but we’ll wait for instructions before continuing our mission.”

*****

Jody noticed him when she came in, but paid him little attention at first. He was in the far corner of the tavern, sitting alone at a table with a half-empty glass in front of him.  She went behind the bar, pulled an apron off of the hook, and put it on.  She enjoyed her job, because she enjoyed talking to new people, and there were always plenty here to talk to.  The owner of the place, Regis, had given her a job there just recently- which was a bit of a joke, because Jody had spent almost every evening there before, without asking for any money in return.  She’d gotten to know Regis well, and had been helping to keep the place tidy while she was there.  It was merely more official now.

Most travelers in Tarense stopped here, because it was the biggest inn and tavern in the lower quarter, and because it was so close to the gate.  After a long journey, people rarely wanted to walk any farther than they had to.  Regis spent most of the time in the kitchen, and had needed someone to help her serve food and drinks.  Her cooking was amazing.  She was such a friendly woman, and it wasn’t until recently that Jody had understood why so many local people kept their distance from her.  But she’d noticed two of the people who came in regularly, and asked to speak with her, were a little different.  Allison was one of them- a quiet young woman, younger than Jody, who would occasionally come in the early afternoon, and catch Regis’s eye from in front of the bar.  The two of them would then go into one of the rooms, before too many of the patrons saw what was happening.  At first, she thought they were lovers, which was no big deal to Jody.  One afternoon, however, she got a good look at Allison as she passed by.  The woman averted her eyes, but not soon enough, and Jody could see how bloodshot they were- almost black.  She’d frozen in place, watching as Allison accompanied Regis up the stairs.  Regis had opened the door for her visitor, and turned to see Jody still watching.  The look she had sent down was such a clear command- Keep quiet, I’ll explain later– that Jody hadn’t even thought of opening her mouth until the two came back.  Allison had left while Jody was serving food, but upon returning to the bar, Regis had whispered her explanation.  It was a simple thing to understand, and Jody had accepted it without much thought.

This man wasn’t like any of the Immune, though.  She’d noticed them – easily, now that she knew what to look for- coming in once in a while, asking for Regis, getting a drink, sometimes a room, keeping to themselves and then moving on.  This man kept to himself, but was looking around the room with a look in his eye that made Jody nervous.  He wore a few pieces of armor, and carried an axe, which wasn’t unusual, but combined with the angry, searching looks he swept the room with, he looked downright dangerous.  Even with a peace knot around the head of his weapon, he seemed too threatening for comfort.

“Regis, what’s with our friend back there?” she asked.  She angled her face toward the corner.

The older woman shrugged her shoulders.  She was a little overweight, but she carried it well.  Her warm eyes had a confused look in them as she turned her face.  “He’s been in here since just after noon.  You’re the one who’s good at reading people- you tell me what he’s about.”

Jody watched him for a moment, and as he searched around the room, their eyes met for a moment.  He continued looking around the room, and she turned back to Regis.

“He’s waiting for someone,” Jody said.  “He’s not looking at the room so much as he’s looking at the people in it.  A wild guess- he’s looking for someone who cheated him.  He’s mad about something, but not with anyone here.  If that someone comes in, he looks like he could get violent awful quick.”

“Do me a favor, Jody, and go ask him.  Ask if he wants any food to go with his drink.  He’s been here a good while with nothing but the one glass of ale he’s got there.  See if he says anything about who it is he’s looking for.”

Jody nodded, then on a whim, she picked up a glass from under the bar.  She filled it up with ale, then slowly crossed the room to where the stranger sat.  She gave him plenty of time to see her coming, and set the glass down next to the one he had.

“Regis tells me you’ve been here long enough for your drink to get stale.  Here’s a fresh one.”

He nodded, sliding the old glass toward her just enough to show he was done with it.  “Thank you,” he said, quietly.

“You have the look of someone trying to find someone else,” she said.  “Any chance I might help?”

He took a sip from the fresh glass, and his eyebrows rose slightly.  As he returned the glass to the table, she got a look at his hands- they had been burned, badly and recently.  Looking closer, she could see that some of the hair on one side of his head had been singed, but not burned.  He turned his eyes upward toward her, and there was something deep inside them that made Jody’s skin crawl just a little.

“I’m looking for someone who is Immune.  I was told that this place was owned by someone who knows how to find Symon and his friends.  It sounded like a good place to start.”  His voice was raspy and gravelly.  He couldn’t be older than 25, but his eyes looked older, more weathered.  He resumed scanning the room with his eyes, and Jody took the hint.

*****

“So what is Tarense like?” Jameson asked.  “I’ve heard people talk about it on occasion, but I’d only met one person who had actually been there- before finding you guys, anyway.”

“It’s a lot bigger than the village you grew up in.  It started out small, I think, a long time ago, but a lot of people moved there because of the mine.  It’s one of the only places you can get iron and steel from.  I’ve only seen two parts of the city, but just the lower quarter is many times bigger than your village.”  The two of them were heading back to Trellis, where the caravan was parked for trading.  They had several books with them, in a bag Marlena had slung across her saddle.

“The lower quarter?”

Marlena smiled.  “The city is divided into four sections, and most travelers stay in two of them.  The whole city is sort of built into the side of a large hill.  The lower quarter is just that – the lowest part, and they make travelers stay there at night in case they’ve been infected on their travels.”

“And in our case, they’d be right,” he observed with a smirk.

“Actually, there’s quite a few Immune that live there, or live nearby.  The normal people there don’t mind us so much.  They have more farms nearby, for example, since the Immune don’t have to run back into town every night, and that means more food- and better food.  There’s one section that holds most of the population’s homes, one section that holds the mine entrance and the highest section on the hill is where the rich and important people live.  No one really minds that – those are the descendents of the men and women who founded the city, and they took a big risk.  Everyone who lives there owes a decent life and safe home to the city, and they all remember that.  It helps that the city’s council is easy to get along with.  They mostly make sure everything is working the way it should, and keep the peace, and stay out of people’s way.”

“Carter’s Hill, on the other hand- those folks live pretty much under the control of the people running the town, and it’s all in one family- the Cartersons.”

Jameson smirked.  “Not very original thinkers when it comes to names, I see.”

“No, but very cunning.  They’re also hard on people who don’t agree with their way of running things.  You and I wouldn’t be welcome there, by the way, which will make our promise to that infected man that much harder to keep.”

“I’ve been thinking about that.”  Jameson paused for a moment, as his horse nickered, nervously.  The sun was beginning to set, and with the number of the Turned in the large city behind them, he was sure his mount could smell them.  “If we’re going to find her, we need to think about how we’re going to do so.  Just walking into Carter’s Hill sounds a little futile, even if they did let us in.”

Marlena nodded.  “I have a feeling that his daughter is out on the road right now, looking for him.  It’s what I would be doing.”

“I was thinking the same thing.  So to find her, we need to find out where he was going, not where he came from.  He asked us to find that place he’d found, and share it with people.  Think his daughter might be on the same quest?”

“Well, it would make our lives a lot easier to find her out in the wild, than to try sneaking into Carter’s Hill.”

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: