The Turned – Chapter 8

They travelled in pairs, with Casper far enough ahead of them that Sarah could talk to Marion without fear of being overheard.  She still kept close watch over her choice of words, and noticed that Marion did the same.

“So he hasn’t made any advances since we’ve left the city,” Marion said, tilting his head toward the front of their line.  “That makes one less thing to worry about.”

Sarah nodded.  Whatever else Casper might be, he was a man of his word.  “I’m more worried about what we’re going to find out here,” she replied.  She was nervous, being out in the wild like this.  They’d planned their route well, with their travel between villages only taking half the day.  If they found one destroyed, it would be easy to either double back, or press on for the next stop.  It was slow going, but it was safer than taking chances.  But still, there were only two members of their team who wore armor, and they weren’t even completely armored during the day- it was too hot.  And while Casper had full armor on his pack-horse, he hadn’t officially completed his training in its use.  They had, however, seen their next village from atop a hill earlier, and it was just after noon.  They would have no trouble getting to safety today.

“This will be when we start getting clues,” Marion said.  He had stopped in this village – Red Hill – on the way to the bunker they’d found.  Everyone was hoping that Sarah’s father was here, waiting for them.  Sarah’s heart was hopeful, her mind was neutral… but her gut was telling her something was horribly wrong.  And not just with her father’s absence.

The village sat atop a small hill, and the fields around it were almost entirely of strawberries.  The paths that criss-crossed among the berry fields were organized so that the Turned wouldn’t need to trample them, just like every other crop-field, but strawberries lent themselves to this arrangement better than most others.  On the southern side of the village was another crop that prevailed against the nightly march of the dead- several rows of apple trees stood in ranks, well-groomed by the villagers.  The trees had to be spaced apart from each other, and trimmed regularly, or the Turned might find enough shade under them to pass the day beneath the branches.  And even as well-groomed as they were, none of the trees were within 50 meters of the village fences.

They arrived in the village about an hour later.  It was the right place, Marion declared, pointing to the large inn they had stopped at during his last visit.  Casper had to spend a few minutes talking to the guards at the gate, but the team certainly didn’t look like trouble-makers of any kind.  Soon they were all inside.  It was a fairly large village, perhaps as many as 400 people, and the perimeter fences were in good shape.  Most of the people were well-dressed, even if their clothes were simple.  They were also well-fed and fairly happy.  Many of the people smiled at their team as they went about their business.  Sarah felt safe again, or at least more safe.  She and Marion let one of the other team members look after the horses, and entered the inn.

The innkeeper was a friendly man, and remembered Marion by sight.  “Aha, good to see you again, sir… I apologize, but I’ve forgotten your name.”  He was a little heavy around the middle, and had bright eyes.  The room was big enough for 50 people, Sarah guessed, and only 15 or so other patrons were here, scattered around tables.  A woman was running plates of food out to people- Sarah guessed that she was the innkeeper’s wife, and was proven right by the winks the two exchanged.

“Marion,” he replied.  “Good to be here again, I remember your apple ale from my last visit.”

The innkeeper smiled.  “You had plenty of friends with you last time.  You’re not travelling with just your girlfriend, now, are you?”  He pulled two glasses up from under the bar, and began filling them with ale.

Marion laughed.  “This isn’t my lady, and no, we’re not alone.  We have a different team this time; more people, and probably staying longer, so we’ll need plenty to drink.”  He motioned toward Sarah.  “This is the daughter of the man I had accompanied last time.”

“I see,” the man said, extending his hand.  “Walter, ma’am, and I hope you took no offense.  Seeing a young man and woman travelling together, it’s the logical conclusion.”

She shook his hand.  “None taken.  Marion is more like a brother to me,” she said, earning a warm smile from her companion.  At least that bridge had started to mend.  “We’re here looking for my father; he had asked for more people to meet him here.”

Walter’s eyes drifted upward as he searched his memory.  “Lets see… I remember a wiry man with black hair, and a taller man who was very loud when he drank.”

“Those were Trent and Marvin,” Marion said.  “Rick was an older man, but not too old- short, with short grey hair and beard, and Sandra was a middle-aged woman with dark hair and big, dark eyes.”

Walter nodded.  “I remember them.  Especially the woman, she was nice to look at.”  His wife happened to pass by just then, and gave him a playful spank with the empty tray she carried.  He laughed, and spanked her in reply.  “There was one more, too – your father, I’d bet… you have his look in your face.  Same eyes and cheekbones.”

Sarah nodded.  “When was the last time you saw them?”

He shook his head.  “Not since I’ve seen Marion here, I’m afraid.  You said he wanted you to meet him here?”

“He’d sent me back to find help for him, and that he’d be here waiting for us.” Marion sighed.  “But he hasn’t returned.”

Walter’s eyes turned sad, and he shook his head.  He could see from their faces that he’d delivered news not unlike a death sentence.  Anyone not showing up where they said they would, these days, almost always meant they were dead.  Or lost, which would lead to dead soon enough.  “Wish I had better news, friends.”  He pushed Marion’s offering of steel coins back across the bar.  “You two will eat and drink for free tonight.  If I hear anything else of your father and his friends, I’ll let you know.  Stella arranged rooms for you?  You’re taken care of that way?  Good,” he said, and sighed.  “Now, if you two are going to be poking your heads around the countryside, looking for them, keep your eyes about you.  We had a group of people ride through here not long ago that looked like pure trouble.  I’ve only seen bandits when they’re brought in for justice, but those men and women had the look about them if I’ve ever seen it.”

“We’ll be cautious,” Marion promised.  “We have quite a team with us, too.  And we’re not carrying anything of value that they’d try to take from us.”

Not yet, anyway, Sarah thought, sipping her drink.

*****

She was shaken awake by Marion. It was still dark out, and the sound of the Turned pushing against the wire fences came in waves.  But there was another sound from outside- shouting, men and women shouting orders and readying weapons.  Marion stood beside her bed, with an intense look on his face.

“Sarah, the Turned broke through the fences.  We have flame weapons, we can help.”  He stood back to give her room to stand.  “Marren and Joyce are almost armored-up, and will be downstairs in a moment.  With those two, and you and I, we can add a team to the defenders, even if it’s just as backup.”

She turned to her bags, pulling her riding clothes out as Marion left the room to let her dress.  She never took her time putting on clothes, but she deliberately rushed this time, and was back outside only a minute after he’d left.  She closed the steel bracers over her forearms, then put on her gloves and picked up the tank for the flame weapon she’d brought with her.  She hadn’t thought much of the Carterson’s decision to issue it to her, but she was glad enough of it now.  When she came downstairs and out of the inn, she was ready to fight.  The two armored fighters of their team, Marren and Joyce, were there waiting for her.  They were both large men, and looked larger in full armor.  Marion came outside just a moment later.

For a moment, they merely watched, trying to orient themselves with what was happening.  Better to take a moment to see what was happening than jump in and potentially hurt someone.  Especially as visitors here; the village defenders had trained for this, and a team of travelers wasn’t factored into their drills.  At first, it seemed like complete chaos.  There were only a few armored fighters holding back what looked like a sea of dead bodies, cutting off limbs and heads of those that got too close, disabling all of them they could.  But soon a trio of flame-wielding defenders came to back them up, arraying themselves around the breach and helping to stop the marching Turned.  The ones in front tried to back up, but the ones behind continued to push, and there were many more behind.  Even as they burned, the ones in front were carried forward by the wave as more and more of the swarm behind pressed forward.  They didn’t truly realize there was a breach, or that their companions in front of them were being hacked apart or burned- they knew only that living food was in this direction, and they pressed that way.

“There!”  Marren pointed, to their left, as one of the local fighters was pushed back.  The four of them dashed that direction, with the fighters dismembering the Turned who got too close, and the two flame-throwers discouraging the rest at longer range.

It wasn’t hard to figure out who the drill-master was here, and he dashed around the formation to join them when he saw what was happening.  He was an older man, but still very strong.  He’d been pulled out of bed, and hadn’t had time to don his armor- he needed to co-ordinate the other fighters more than he needed to be in armor himself.  He’d seen the near-breach, and had feared they wouldn’t stop the intruders from destroying a few homes before more defenders armored up and arrived, but the visitors had plugged the hole just in time.

“From the look of that move, I’d swear you trained here,” he shouted over the noise.  “How long can you hold up?”

“These flame tanks are full, but you’re going to need more people out here, fast,” Sarah shouted back.

“They’re coming.  It’ll only be another minute now.”  He turned, and saw that reinforcements were moving faster than he’d thought.  So much the better.  There would be no trouble convincing the council that they needed more training time after this evening, he thought grimly.  He only hoped the night watch had reacted fast enough to keep anyone from getting killed.

Sarah and Marion stood apart from each other, with the armored men between them.  At this point, it was mostly the flame that did the work.  Other teams appeared nearby, allowing them to relax a little.  The drill-master returned, after seeing to his own people.

“There’s a team right behind you, ready to take your place whenever you’re ready to quit,” he said.  “You’re visitors here, and we owe you for the work you’ve done so far, so if you want to drop out, go ahead.  We’ve got more people right behind you.”

Sarah was about to take him up on it, but one of the Turned caught her eye.  Not as badly decayed as the others, but more chewed-up.  She had all her limbs, and most of her clothes, but the bites on her arms, legs, and face explained what had happened.  Her clothing, though, was what the Cartersons would issue explorers; that way, if they were killed and Turned, they’d be easy to spot later on.

It’s Sandra, she thought, shaking her head for a moment to chase away the feelings that came with the realization.  She shouted at Marion, who recognized the walking corpse only a moment later.  He stopped his fire, then tapped the flame-team beside him and leaned in to say something into their ear.  The look he got was complete disbelief.

Marren had seen her, too.  He gave Joyce a backhand slap on the shoulder, hard enough to move him, but not hurt through the plate armor, and the two moved forward at the same time.  Up until the flame-weapons had turned off, there was a 20-foot clear area between the two sides, but now the dead were moving toward them again, carrying Sandra’s body with them in the crush.  Sarah kept her flame up to their side, to make sure none of the dead tried to flank them, and Marion did the same on the other side.  The two fighters each had hacked apart a half-dozen of the Turned before Sandra was close to them.  At that point, they again moved together, swinging their axes close enough to sever both of Sandra’s arms.  Joyce hacked at the Turned directly behind her, and Marren shoulder-bashed her back toward Sarah and Marion.  The body fell forward, and without arms, couldn’t quickly stand back up.  Its legs thrashed wildly, but before they could do anything effective, Marren had brought his axe down twice, right through the top of the thigh-bones.  Both legs separated, and what blood remained in the body flowed out freely.

The team behind Sarah had stepped in now, and was pushing back the Turned.  More teams were along the unbroken parts of the fences on either side of the breach now, pouring flame into the Turned there to convince them not to try to press their way inside.  Bottles and jugs of strong alcohol, with burning rags stuffed into their necks, were thrown over the defenders heads and into the crowd of the dead beyond, shattering and spreading flame behind them.  These made the press from behind relax, and now the Turned nearest the flame weapons had someplace to escape to.  The breach had stabilized, at least for now.  There would be many teams of flame-weapons, burning all night and into the dawn, relieving each other as the fuel ran out.  The Turned would be there the whole time, smelling living humans but afraid to go nearer to the heat.  In the morning, the villagers would mend the fences, and hopefully this wouldn’t become a regular event.

Marren gave the torso a good kick, which rolled it across the ground and away from the fence.  Sarah didn’t dare approach it- the head was thrashing about, teeth bared, just waiting for something to get close enough to bite.  It was definitely Sandra, she saw.  The dark hair was almost completely intact, if a little singed from the night’s adventure.  She’d left blood all over the ground.  Sarah’s mind replayed their last conversation together, and it almost brought tears to her eyes.  Sarah had thought she knew everything about this woman- why she was always trying too hard to be friendly to Sarah, why she always seemed to show up when Sarah was about to meet with her friends and other people who were beginning to organize against the Carterson’s leadership of their home town, and how she was trying to convince Sarah’s father to become part of the system by sleeping with him.  But now, looking back, somehow all the conversations looked different.  She felt her impressions change when they’d left town the last time, and now she scolded herself for presuming that this woman had been anything more sinister than her father’s lover.

The village drill-master returned to them, after checking on the flame-team that had taken their place.  “You could have put a lot of people in danger back there, but damn it if that wasn’t one hell of a maneuver.”  He looked down at the corpse.  “What’s so special about this one?”

The torso wouldn’t lay flat on its back.  It still wore a backpack, and whatever was inside didn’t flatten enough to keep it from laying on its side.  The distorted, discolored face turned upward toward them, still trying to bite at them from several feet away.  The skin was drawn tight over the muscles and tendons of the face, the eyes sunken and darkened, and the eyes bloodshot.  Even so, the brown irises were still there.  The color was right, but the woman, the person, the human behind them was gone.  Sarah found herself terribly sorry for her last words to her, but this corpse would never understand them, even if its previous owner would have forgiven her.

Marion approached the drill-master at this point.  “She was part of the team we were sent here to find.”

The drill-master took a closer look.  “Carter’s Hill.  I should have known, seeing you two move like that.”  He looked up at Marren.  “Tomorrow, if you’re not leaving town right away, I’d like you to stick around for a while and show my people a few of your tricks.”  The armored man nodded from inside his helmet.

Marion put his hand on Sarah’s shoulder.  “You ok?”

She nodded, then blinked a tear away before she realized it was there.  She couldn’t wipe it away with a hand- if any infected blood had spattered onto her hand, she could infect herself.  “Just seeing her like this, knowing what she must have gone through…”

He nodded.  “It’s over now.  She’s long-since Turned.  That’s just a dead body.”

Suddenly the corpse’s back arched, then bent the other direction in a futile attempt to gain enough momentum to sit up.  Without any limbs, it wouldn’t have stayed upright anyway, and all it accomplished was to flop over onto its other side.  Marren stepped up, kicked it over onto its face, then brought the axe down again, severing the thing’s neck. More blood spilled on the ground, but there was so little left that it didn’t get far.  Marren and Joyce both had many spots on their armor, and would need to wait up until morning, to let the sunlight kill off any infection waiting in the creature’s blood.  They couldn’t even risk taking the armor off until it had been in the sunlight.

Sarah looked closer, and realized that the body wasn’t wearing Sandra’s backpack.  It was wearing the pack her father had taken with him.

*****

Svetlana didn’t know how they could stand it. She would go into the villages, and as often as not she would stay there overnight, and the fresh air was something she had begun to take for granted.  Being cooped up in these carriages all night long was getting to her.  She couldn’t return to the nearby village without being noticed; she could come up with a good story, certainly, but her mission was to be forgotten by everyone she saw.  Returning there might be something she could explain, but the explanation would be remembered, as would her face.  And her job, her duty to the order, would be compromised if she was recognized.  It was her worst fear, really; that she would enter a village, minding her own business, but by some chance a survivor of another village would be there, and recognize her as a traveler that had come through not long before they had been attacked.  She was sure the punishment would be unpleasant, at very least.

That meant sleeping here again.  She could tolerate it, but not easily.  If Odyna didn’t return by the end of the day, she told herself, she’d take her horse and ride ahead to their next destination.  There she’d simply wait for her team to catch up.

But what if the orders they received sent them the other direction?  Dresten would have to come get her before moving on, and that would cost them as much as a day.  They didn’t know how many days they had, so throwing even one away in such a manner could make their mission a failure.

And because of that, she’d have to sleep in these damned carriages until their messenger returned with orders.

Thankfully, that was the point in her one-person conversation when she saw Odyna crossing the grassy field, her horse at a trot as she looked for the carriages.  Svetlana lifted her fingers to her mouth, and gave a wavering whistle that sounded like the call of a bird.  Odyna turned her head, then her horse, and approached the forest.  Svetlana leaped down from the top of the carriage, and Odyna dismounted.  The two embraced, as the sisters they considered themselves to be, then led Odyna’s mount to the carriage that would protect it overnight.  They didn’t speak – there wasn’t much to say until Odyna gave her report, and their happiness to see each other was evident in their eyes.

“There’s another team on it’s way to the area,” she said, drinking deeply of the water they’d brought her.  She had ridden most of the afternoon without water, having drank most of her supply in the morning.  “They’ll move toward Chardoth, where we’ve been before, and keep an eye on it.”

“Keep an eye on it?” Dresten repeated.  “What does that mean?”

“It means that they’ll be watching the village, and if anyone starts building anything unusual around the perimeter of the village, they attack.”  Odyna wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.  Svetlana took the empty canteen from her, and handed her another.  “Thank you, sister,” she breathed, before taking another deep drink.

Dresten only nodded.  “And orders for us?”

“We’re to meet with them outside that village, and pass on as much information about the place as you normally do before an attack.  We’ve surveyed the place recently, so we’ve got the best knowledge.  Then we move towards Carter’s Hill.  Svetlana, you’ll be going right into the wolf’s den.”

Svetlana nodded, quietly.  Her mind was racing.

*****

Jameson was looking at the small village of Trellis, which stood at the top of a small hill surrounded by farm fields.  There were three roads leading to this place, and the caravan was parked just outside of the Eastern gate.  The village, he decided, was not all that different than the one he’d grown up in.  Or the last one they’d visited, for that matter.  Not that they all looked the same, but they had the same kind of atmosphere, the same “feel” about them.  They planted different crops in their fields, but that was probably the biggest difference.

The people regarded the gypsies as friends and business partners, even if it was only in passing.  Lincoln apparently knew this place, and its council, very well.  Jameson was amazed by the man’s ability to remember faces so well, and to recall so much history so easily.  It was part of what made him so good at being a merchant, Jameson decided.

Two of the families that had been traveling with them had made this their last stop.  One family would continue with them, and another group was considering travelling out with them in the morning.  Jameson could overhear Lincoln discussing the journey with them.

“It’s not a problem for you to sleep in one of our container-carriages; there’s five of you?  We have plenty of space,” the old gypsy waved his arms in the direction of their supply carriages.  “You just have to make sure that there’s nothing for the Turned to eat in your own carriage, that’s all.  If they smell something they can eat, they’ll break in and look for it.  Then you have to clean out your carriages, because they’ll always leave something infected behind.  If not, though, they’ll just pound on the walls of these carriages all night.”

The father of the family nodded.  He was holding a baby girl, who couldn’t be more than a year old.  “I’m worried that she won’t be able to sleep through it.”

Lincoln nodded, then said, “It’s noisy at night, but you learn to tune it out.  Besides, it’s not all that much louder than hearing them rattling your fences all night.”

Marlena climbed up on top of the carriage, and sat beside Jameson on the hatch that led below.  Neither of them would be noticed up there, and if they were, no one would be able to see their eyes at that distance.

“Not such a terrible life, is it?” he said.  “I’ve seen more of the world in the past week than I had my whole life before.”

She nodded.  “It’s good that you look at it that way.  There’s plenty of bad out there, but you can’t let that be all that you see.”

“Meeting you people has been great.  Grunnel has talked to me about teaching me to fight.”

“He’s a great teacher.  Tough when he needs to be, but he’s seen what happens to people when they’re not tough.”  She sighed.  “And it’s something you’ll have to learn eventually, I’m afraid.”

Jameson nodded.  “When I was younger, I never wanted to swing an axe at anything but firewood.  My friends didn’t understand; I wanted to make people safe, and the best way to do that was to make armor for them.”

“That’s an excellent skill to have,” she agreed.  “And you could make yourself a handsome living in just about any village if you’re good at it.  But someone’s got to wear the armor, too.  Someone’s got to do the fighting.”

She looked off across the fields, and Jameson saw her stretch upward, as if something had caught her eye.  He followed her gaze, and saw someone on horseback approaching.  She stood, then turned back toward where Lincoln and their potential passenger were still talking, and gave two short, quiet whistles.  He turned to look at her, and she motioned with her head toward the rider.  Jameson was climbing down the other side of the carriage when he noticed the feeling.

The rider was definitely infected.  When he got close, Jameson could tell for certain that he was Immune.

Lincoln had come around the carriage when the man dismounted. His clothing was rough, but bright-colored, as if he’d chosen well-made but old clothes for this ride.  His hair was long and black, giving a sharp contrast with his nearly-white skin.  He looked at Jameson for a long moment, then smiled and extended his hand.  It had been so long since anyone had shaken his hand that at first, Jameson didn’t know what to do.  But then his mind reasoned that he couldn’t be any more infected than he already was, and he took the stranger’s hand.

“New to this life, I would guess,” the stranger said, still smiling warmly.  His voice sounded somewhat boisterous to Jameson, who had been getting used to keeping quiet and out of sight.  “Don’t worry about it, I know what it’s like, getting used to everyone keeping their distance.”  He patted Jameson’s shoulder like an old companion.  “First person shows up who seems like they’re not afraid of you makes you wonder if you should be afraid of them.  My name’s Katrick.”

“Jameson.  Sorry about that,” he replied.

“Like I said, don’t worry about it.”  He turned to Lincoln.  “Good to see you again, old man,” he said.  His voice was a bit overbearing, as if he was deliberately talking too loud, but he seemed friendly enough.  Then Marlena appeared from behind the gypsy, and Jameson was almost shocked when she wrapped her arms around the rider as if they were siblings.

“Katrick, good to see you well,” Lincoln replied.  “You’ll join us for dinner tonight?”

“Of course I will,” Katrick replied, “Seeing as how you won’t have to make anything special for me.”  His eyes moved to Marlena and Jameson at that.

Lincoln caught Jameson’s confused look at that statement, and explained.  “Katrick travelled with us for some time, and he said it always bothered him when he was the only one eating meat cooked to his taste.”

“Which means raw,” Marlena said, releasing Katrick and stepping back.  “Good to see you.  What brings you out here?”

“Looking for you, actually.  I had to follow your route for a week before I found you.  Fortunately for me, you haven’t found a way to make these carriages any faster, or it would have been a month.”

“Looking for us?” Lincoln said.  “Or for her?”  He tilted his head toward Marlena.

“Both of you,” Katrick replied, “But at Symon’s request, for her.”

*****

It was after their nightly council, and the family heads had all returned to their own carriages.  They would harness up the animals in the morning, and head out as early as they could.  They had welcomed Katrick back as a friend, and had many stories to share.  Jameson had noticed that Leon Richards, however, was nervous around him- perhaps not nervous, but he didn’t laugh as much as usual, only smiling at the tales and news where Jameson had come to see him as a bit of a jokester.

“Well, he mostly remembers me as the man who had a crush on his daughter,” Katrick explained, chuckling to himself.  “And no matter what Marlena and I said, he just didn’t understand.  We Immune can’t just follow our desires like that- especially not the way he and his family do!  Since that kind of impulse control is something he doesn’t feel the need to exercise, he was always afraid I’d try something with Andi.  As if she’d have agreed to anything like that with me.”

“So,” Lincoln said, taking a sip of his second glass of wine for the night, “what does bring you here looking for us?”

“Have you been close to Carter’s Hill lately?” Katrick asked.  Jameson could see his demeanor change, as Lincoln’s often did.  Pleasurable talk was over, and it was time for business.

“Not any closer than we are now,” Lincoln replied evenly.  “Not much reason to be.”

“We’ve heard some things coming out of there that are troublesome.  The Cartersons have been sending out emissaries to the nearby villages, offering them some sort of annexation deal.  The city is offering to send out soldiers to help protect the village, and for payment they’d need to send a portion of their crops as a tax.  Some people from the city would be coming out to the villages- apparently the city is getting too crowded, and the Cartersons dreamed up a way of giving their friends new places to live in the villages.  At the same time, they’d be able to lay claim to a lot more land and space.”

Marlena shook her head, slowly.  “The Cartersons wouldn’t send their friends out to a more dangerous life in a small village, even with city-trained soldiers to protect them.  Even if those friends would agree to it, it’d be a punishment, not a reward.”

“I guess that’s just how crowded the city is getting.  A lot of the wealthier people are thinking of living somewhere else.  And there’s more to it than just sending out soldiers, apparently.”  Katrick leaned forward.  “They’re telling the villages that they have discovered something- some way of building walls the way the Ancients did, out of stone or something.  Something that the Turned would never be able to break.”

At that, Jameson and Marlena’s eyes met, and he found himself sharing a look with her not unlike the ones she occasionally gave Lincoln.  They both were thinking the same thing, that was clear enough.

“Well, now, that certainly got your attention,” Katrick said, looking from one to the other.

Marlena explained.  “We recently found a man in a village cage, infected to the point that he was about to Turn.  He had asked us to find his daughter, and deliver a message to her.  He said he was from Carter’s Hill, and we should go there to find her.  But he also said he and some companions had found a building made by the Ancients, and inside they’d discovered something… something he said we should go find, and return with, and share with as many people as we could.”  She paused for a moment.  “There’s little chance that these two events are unrelated.”

Katrick nodded.  “I agree.  Apparently the Cartersons have found the place, and taken their discovery back with them.”

Lincoln was quiet and thoughtful, but then broke his silence.  “When was it that we found that man?  Three days ago?  Four?”

Marlena nodded, then found his line of reasoning.  “That’s not enough time for the Cartersons to have been able to act, and then for word to get to Symon, then to us through you, Katrick.  It would have taken them a few days just to figure out what they had, much less decide how to make use of it.”

“That tells us two things,” Lincoln said.  “It tells us that the Cartersons had a plan to annex those villages already moving forward, and this discovery, whatever it is, just happened to fit into the plan.  It also tells us that they couldn’t have possibly found it yet.”

Jameson had been quiet to this point, as well.  He hadn’t had anything to add until now.  “I don’t know who it is you’re talking about, but if I was in their place, and a man I had sent out had vanished just after discovering something like that, I’d send more people out to find him immediately.”  He looked over at Marlena.  “And among those people, I’d send his daughter along.  Who better to follow the man’s trail?”

Katrick nodded his agreement.  “Very true.  And that means that there’s a team of explorers out in the wild somewhere.”  He took a deep breath.  “I’ve got to share this with Symon.  Marlena, if they find this place, wherever it is, and really do find a way to build things the way the ancient’s did… The Cartersons are building an empire, and not many people around can stop them.”

Marlena glared at him.  “I don’t like the direction you’re taking this conversation, Katrick,” she said, quietly.

“It’s the truth, Marlena.  We have enough trouble trying to make a life these days as it is.  If the Cartersons expand into the nearby villages, do you think they’ll stop there?”  He shook his head.  “You know how Symon is, how he thinks.  He and I have the same opinion of normal people you do; we’re not out to take the earth from them.  But we need a place to live, too, and you know how the Cartersons will deal with us where they find us.  Think of the people in Ridgehaven.  There’s at least a dozen people in there that will be burned.”

“That doesn’t mean we should just wipe out the explorers,” Marlena said.  Her voice remained quiet and even.  Jameson could see the emotions battling each other in her eyes.  “If we find them, perhaps we can convince them to-“

“Come on, Marlena, what kind of people do you think they’re going to send?” Katrick asked, impatiently.  “I know there’s a resistance movement growing there, but the Cartersons are not going to send any of them on a mission like this.  They’ve got enough smart people that are loyal to them to send a dozen people just from their own family.  Unless…”

“Unless they plan to kill the explorers when they return?  Make them disappear?” Marlena said.  “I know that kind of thing happens, but what are we supposed to do about it?”

“That’s easy, Marlena.  Get to the place first, find out what it is, and take it before the team from Carter’s Hill gets there.”

“And run the risk of getting in a fight with them?” Marlena asked in reply.  “There’s two ways that could play out.  Either they’re all loyal, and have enough fighters with them to wipe out anything that gets in their way, or they’re a bunch of average people with a family member leading them- and in that case, the large group of fighters will be waiting to ambush them.  In either case, there’s a fight waiting for us that we can’t win.”

Jameson was beginning to lose track of what they were saying.  Unsaid things were flying between them, between their eyes.  He almost had it figured out when Katrick spelled it out for him.

“Marlena, our people need your help.  I know you think we all turned our backs on you, but that’s not what happened.  That’s not what Symon did, and that’s not what I did.  Now, I know some of that loyalty is still left in you, otherwise you wouldn’t have let us know how to find you.”

Jameson looked over to Lincoln, who was also completely silent.  He fixed Jameson with a look that clearly said This is not a conversation we should interfere with.

After a long silence, Katrick said, “Well, I’ll go back tomorrow and share this news with Symon.  He’ll be interested, that’s for sure.  I don’t know if he’ll want to take any action about it or not, but he’ll need to let others know.  Xeren and her crowd are growing all the time, and getting more courageous.  Something like this would give them an excuse to fight, and Symon is having more and more trouble keeping things from boiling over.”  He stood, and shook Lincoln’s hand.  “Thanks for the room and board- my mount appreciates not being eaten.”

Lincoln smiled.  “You’re always welcome, you know that.”

“Good to meet you, younger brother,” Katrick said to Jameson.  “If you get up near Tarense, look for Regis’s inn.  They’re friendly to us there, and can help you find Symon and our other friends up there.  Marlena knows where to look, but in case you break off on your own.  And good luck.”  The two shook hands.

Again, Marlena embraced him like he was a long lost brother.  After he’d climbed out of the hatch, Lincoln had made his way toward his bed, and taken off his jacket.  A few moments later, Marlena and Jameson climbed up to the hatch as well.  Once on the roof, Jameson asked, “What is it that happened between you?”

She sighed.  “It’s a long story for another time.”

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