Chapter 1: The Scouts
-Strange – 13 Pages –
Our horses burst from the woods, hooves pounding against the soil and throwing up the turf in thick chunks. My mount had been spurred with a shout to drive her onwards, to carry me as I duck and dodge the branches that whip past and, on occasion, sting at my flesh. Her eyes are wide with adrenalin, her snorts taking in deep gulps of much needed air, but now she is brought up short by the sudden tug on her reins.
Before me, the fields that stretch north are covered in the living dead, those bodies that have risen up and are even now coming forwards through the trees behind me and my men. The three that remain have also pulled up their rides, eyes now locked on the jerky movements and decaying faces that taint the landscape before us. All are stunned, shocked by the sheer numbers that now paint the fields before us.
“How many are there?”
That is one of my younger scouts, a man with crystal blue eyes and a long-gone youthful smile. Since this hell has stretched out its wings upon the land he has no longer been the same optimistic lad of Mariad. Dressed in the familiar tanned chaperon of the king’s scouts, we look upon the animated corpses.
Fifty? Sixty? Perhaps even more? They walk in their jagged slow motions, a never-ending pace, some dragging broken limbs at the unseemliest angle. Others show horrific wounds that surely took their lives: disembowelled, necks ripped open, limbs torn from their sockets. These are surely dead yet now they walked.
“Seems we’re surrounded, Victor,” another says. He is another one of my men, a lot older, “but at least we know what is beyond them.” This thought has also occurred to me. A few nights ago, these nightmarish creations had started appearing across the land to the southwest. When the fighting grew tough, we had always retreated to the best road that led north, back to the safety of the capital and its gigantic, protecting walls. Now we are staring across dry green grass, its yellow stains caused by the sun’s heat, and we all know what lies beyond: that same road home.
“God knows,” I murmur in answer, my mind racing to find a solution to the problem that now faces us. I absent-mindedly scratch the start of my beard, black curls that have sprouted from my face this last week or so. Since the king lost his daughter we have been sent out every day, barely having time to sleep before being roused once more and returning to our mounts. Emile has vanished, as has the small army of men led by Wilhelm, the man who had been given the charge of finding her. All the king can do is scour the land, looking for some sign of her. The lost soldiers do not concern him.
The grip on my spear’s shaft grows tighter. Giving a nod, I raise my weapon, thrusting the shaft forwards so that the smoothly carved wood points to our escape and salvation.
“Back is certain death. Forwards will take us home. We either fight our way to Ancora or die on the battlefield.” I can hear the scrape of steel on steel as swords are drawn from their sheaths, knowing that the men will follow me through this nightmare to burst forth once more. “Who is with me?”
To my roar of defiance, they let out their own shouts to challenge the dead and display the warrior’s loyalty. They are good men, noble men, and they will either break through to the road or be slain honourably.
“Hyah!” With the quick call I dig my heels into my horse’s side and the animal lunges forwards with a whiny, bolting towards the dead that will be unable to stop me.
They are too slow. A speed to be ridiculed.
The tip of my spear lunges downwards as I gallop past, the serrated head smashing through the open mouth of one woman whose flesh has already had great chunks ripped from it. The strength of the blow forces the weapon to crash through the back of her mouth, ripping out of the back of her neck to break the jaw with a crunch that I barely even hear. Instead my instinct is already making me twist the weapon so that it does not become stuck. Then it is back against my side as I steer my horse through the gaps between the dead, so easy to outmanoeuvre.
The blue-eyed solder darts past on his much faster white steed, even having the cheek to laugh at my slower mount. His eyes twinkle as he swings his sword around in a sweep that splits one of the creatures from gut to gullet and then he is gone from my sight.
“Keep close damn you.” I shout.
But my words are lost on him as that boyish eagerness springs back into his spirit. Another mounted figure rides up beside me. When I dodge my mount between two dead they reach out aimlessly as I dash past.
“The boy needs his fun.” The older man grins, looking across at me with a gleam in his face that, for once, makes me forget the troubles we have been through. I almost grin back.
Then his mount swerves, just the slightest bit too sharply, and as if in slow motion I briefly see him thrown sideways by the momentum. His eyes widened, his mouth gapes in shock, and then he is thrown from his mount and I have sped past. Wrenching the reign, I pull my beast around, forcing her head to turn so that I can look for my comrade amongst the long grass.
Already the dead are closing in, one second dotted and uncoordinated and then pulling together to converge on their prey the next. Their pace quickens, a new revitalisation of the hunger that taints their reaching hands and gaping maws, calling for food with grunts and groans. Wherever the soldier is, he is disappearing from sight, blocked from view by the shuffling crowds of stomach-churning dead.
Turning, I raise my spear high and gallop back into the fray.
There has been an awkward silence between Joseph and I ever since the escape from Abendale. Despite my head start he caught up, some instinctive distrust of the young soldier always playing in the back of my mind. I cannot tell why but I cannot dispel the persistent itching as well. His face portrays one message but there are those slight signs that something deeper is going on inside him. Short ginger curls and freckled face were something that once showed me a cheeky innocence, but now he has a much colder look in his eyes. There is a hunger there and it makes me nervous. Whenever I look across at him he gives his usual sloping grin, but there is no mischief in his eyes. Instead, his small hands play over the hilt of his sword, resting in its scabbard against his thigh. It does not help that he sits comfortable in his saddle whilst my legs ache from the long walk
In the distance, to the north and west, the mountain ranges loom ever closer. They seem to be dark giants overlooking the land, guarding this kingdom with their unclimbable peaks and absence of passes. There are very few places to invade my father’s land and that is why Khazar’s zombi invasion has been so clever. Why try to march an army in like a wave breaking against unmovable cliffs when the kingdom could be infecting from within. I had been kidnapped and used to lure Wilhelm and my father’s men into a sadistic ceremony where the blood of the fallen allowed the dead to rise. Now the dark-haired hero of Mariad is gone and one of the largest cities, Abendale, has already fallen.
“You do not have to accompany me to the capital.” My tone is suggestive, not enquiring or ordering. This new Joseph who rides alongside me, looking down at me like I am some peasant and not the daughter of the king, is far more dangerous than the boy who I had thought dead in Abendale just a week ago. He has changed.
“I think I do.”
The statement is simple and definite. There will be no argument in the matter. Our brief conversation at the beginning of the journey from Abendale still spooks me. I know, have always known, that the possessed Khazar wanted me alive at the capital, but now my suspicions are rife that Joseph is yet another henchman of the demon.
“My master wants me to make sure you do. No more running away. Your sword.”
Those had been his words when he had taken my sword from me; not necessarily stating he was an agent of Khazar’s, yet could anything else be closer to the line? He had insisted that he had taken my weapon as I did not know how to handle it, that I could hurt myself just as easily as any opponent. Both of us had known this to be untrue, but what would he have done with his spear had I refused? Already I felt like a prisoner.
“What happened in Abendale?” Maybe conversation will allow me a moment to act.
“I escaped. Just as you did.” By that tone I know he has worked out there is more to my flight than being another refugee. I feel a shiver as I remember the words Khazar spoken to me at the beginning of the nightmarish ritual, feel the sting where the whip had struck me to drive his cultists into a frenzy. Could it be possible that Joseph would listen to reason?
Halting, I look up at Joseph. Behind him, the sun is dropping under the treeline, yet the light still makes me raise my hand to shade my face.
“Joseph, Khazar believes I will kill my father.” With the expressionless lack of reply, I continue. “Before the ceremony that you and Wilhelm rescued me from, he told me he had a vision that I would slay him in the throne room.”
Joseph shrugs. “Would you believe everything Khazar tells you?”
He has a point. Khazar is certainly manipulative and has known that the paths of fate could be shaped to what he sees unfolding before us. His powers have been strengthened tenfold, thanks to the sacrifice of the soldiers who came to rescue me, and he now controls a vast dead army that marches across the land. Behind me the wind sounds as though it moans, a sad wail to express its pity for the Kingdom’s plight. Is it just our kingdom that faces this plague of living corpses or will we be just the start of the infection? Will this apocalypse unfold to all known lands?
“This time I did.” My mind is lost in those final moments before the satanic ceremony when he knelt beside my naked body, stripped by the cultists ready for the kill. But that hadn’t been his plan. “He knew of things I cannot speak. He knows I have little love for my father.”
Joseph tilts his head, a sudden spark of interest in his eyes. “Feel free to elaborate.”
I shake my head free from the dark thoughts. “It doesn’t matter. He just knew.”
The young rider rebukes my reasoning with a snort. “Then I am sure you speak the truth. Keep moving.”
My feet stay planted where they are. “He wishes Ancora and the kingdom to fall, Joseph, he wants me to kill my father.”
But whether Joseph hears my mention of the capital I cannot say, for he is now fixated on the sharp hawthorn hedge that lines the side of the road. Every now and again its tangled barrier is broken by a solid oak, having shoved the lesser trees aside with its mighty, gnarled branches.
“Can you not hear that?” he murmurs, body rigid and alert.
I begin to feel an eerie sense of foreboding, tensing myself to pick out the sound that has made Joseph so uneasy. There is nothing except that constant moan of the wind: an unnatural edge to it, I have to grant him, but nothing that couldn’t be the mind playing tricks.
“Just the wind.” I finally reply. “Nothing else.”
Shaking his head, Joseph looks down at me. “Then look at the leaves.”
My eyes shift up to the foliage of the oak, its orange brown coat now fading as the colder nights come in. Feeling the cold steadily spread across my flesh, my skin prickles with the sense of danger and dread. The leaves above us do not even shiver. The moaning is not the call of the wind.
When will this hell end? We have ridden between the burning villages. Black smoke had climbed into the air, displaying the evil shadow that spread its diseased tendrils across the land. We had ridden small trails where the shade of the ragged hedges was an ambushing spot for the hungry killers and then finally our reconnaissance had taken us into the land’s dark woods.
There, every tree was a monster, hollows were gaping maws. Brambles thrashed at the legs, the forest trying to repel our presence from its darkness. The chestnuts that littered the floor amongst the decaying browns and golden orange were no longer the toys of my childhood memories, but were now another part of a dark, macabre play. The dead had come at us from all sides, no benefit from riding high up in the saddle as each new oak had hidden another crazed killer, risen to feed its insatiable hunger.
We had been picked off as we tried to complete King Theissen’s orders: to sweep the landscape in search of his beloved daughter. Every field, every village, every creek and wood had to be explored. We would not stop until Emile was found. At first the task had not been so hard, and we had believed that it would be at an end when Wilhelm returned to the capital to tell the King he had found Emile. They had marched out through the gates sure of victory, twenty or so men sent to Darkwood in order to destroy the cult that had kidnapped her.
When they had not returned things changed. Tension began to grow in the castle with the news that Wilhelm’s men had not arrived back at the castle. Messengers had been sent out and not returned, another bad omen that had left Theissen blind to what was happening. Two days later there was still no word until a young man, sweating, bleeding and mortally wounded, had burst through the open gates carried by a loyal horse. He had told us of a hell that was breaking loose, of the fall of Abendale and the nightmare that was spreading across the land.
Then of course our nightmare had begun. The fleeing refugees had begun to appear at Ancora in ones and twos. We were sent out to hunt down those who spread the false claims of walking dead and to find his daughter. Only the stories had been true. We had died slowly, killed by lunging hands and teeth that had pulled men from the horses or ripped open flesh to leave men with their lives bleeding from them. Each time we had returned to Ancora, Victor had given his commander an exhausted shake of his head before we had collapsed on the straw in the stables to be beside our mounts. With so little sleep, so much riding, and the never-ending torrent of killing and death, we could only use those valuable moments to gain back some energy. Within a few hours we would be back scouting the lands once more.
Ahead, the younger soldier wrenches his horse around he screams to drive his horse towards the horde, sword raised high. One creature tries to claw him from his mount but a kick of his leather boot sends it spinning away, throwing it to the ground. On the floor, a writhing mass of dead claw at the soldier who lies below. Their howls are filled with pleasure and just one of the monsters looks up, lips and teeth soaked in blood. The stains of death coat it’s jaw and yet it has no satisfaction just that look of a wanton need to kill.
Leaping from his horse he swings left and right, cleaving one skull almost in two whilst taking the arm off a second creature as it reaches out with pale fingers. His sword is huge, solid steel making a bulky curved blade. It was not designed for skilful combat but to hack and chop as it is swung downwards into the foe. Howls and moans call out into the sky as the creatures turn their attention from the fallen warrior’s thrashing body and see the fresh prey that is fighting through them. Instead they are returned to the sleep that they escaped. He hacks down, one slash and then another, an anger overtaking him as he crashes limbs aside and smashes back biting teeth.
There are too many. Every step closer brings him nearer to the frenzy. Each blow brings another two to replace the fallen. Corpses now litter the ground around him, some even still twitching or trying to claw their way towards him, but the others have now collected together. They are like a hive of bees, weak and useless alone but en masse they are impossible to push back. A thrust of one dishevelled hand is immediately followed by an attempted lunge of another, and though they have a source of nourishment many have now turned to him.
My spear rams through the head of one as its claws grasp hold of the boy. With horror he realises that the thing could easily have pulled him down, and he simply stares at the corpse as it is shaken free of the polearm and slides to the floor.
“Get on.” My voice barks. “He is dead.”
Pulled quickly from the shock by the sharp order, he looks up at my face, staring grimly downwards. Another of my men had arrived to the right, swinging left and right with his spear to fend the dead off and give us time.
He does not need to be told again. Reaching for the leather he grips firmly and heaves himself upwards, somehow managing to keep a grip on his sword. His body presses against mine, his sharp eyes looking for some way through the mass. It is all he can do but look on as the other survivor is wrenched from his seat by a swarm of groping hands. With a scream he disappears and the horse whinnies in terror, rearing and kicking out with madness in its eyes. Yet the living dead do not care.
A sudden movement makes him grip tightly to me, trying to hold himself in place so that he does not join the fate of my fellow soldiers. With a jerk I break for what seems like a gap, and as the dead close in, he kicks them back.
Then we are away,
The moaning is unmistakable. I have heard those calls before, when I stood in the lines that had tried to hold the gates at Abendale. Those had been the war cries of the dead, eerie howls and groans that seeped into the soul.
“Joseph?” The uncertainty in Emile’s voice is clear, curious as to why I have suddenly tensed up. It surprises me that she had not even heard them, that she could be so ignorant to what those sounds are.
“Can you not hear that?” Unconcerned with her fears, my words are mumbled and more or less said to myself. At first it seems like she is satisfied with my answer, that she has realised what I am referring to.
“Just the wind. Nothing else.”
But I have already ousted that idea. The gentle sway of the branches, the beginning of nature’s hypnotic overture of the storm, is not present. Not one single leaf shakes.
“Then look at the leaves.”
As she looks upwards, dark shapes shuffle along the other side of the hedgerow, half hidden by the hawthorn barrier. It reveals the sun beyond through the many small gaps, created by the mesh of thorny twigs. Though it is impossible to see through, the shadowy forms can be made out now they have my attention.
Back in Abendale the zombi had avoided me when they swarmed the streets, Khazar’s magic protecting me from the flood that swallowed up those around me, but would I take that risk? To just stand here when the greater distance from Khazar or Emile’s presence might make a different conclusion to my life’s story? I look down at the unarmed Emile and feel the hilt of her sword at my side.
“Get up.” I lean over, reaching down to give her some support. “Now!”
The words are followed by a hellish half-shriek half-groan and a corpse drags itself through a gap with a faltering lurch. The space underneath the oak tree is like some gateway for the dead and, as one staggers in with one shoulder hunched and flesh decaying, another follows its path. Hands begin to break through the hedge as dead throw themselves upon the thorny barrier from the other side. Unable to get through, their blood smeared hands gouged by the hawthorn’s sharp spines, they reach out for us as their hunger pulls them towards us.
“Get on.” I shout at Emile, gripping his upper arm tightly and preparing to pull her up.
Instead, she grabs my arm with all the strength she can muster and pulls. The action catches me completely off guard and I am falling, my foot catching in the stirrup and twisting as it comes free. My shoulder hits the ground, sending a sharp jolt up my arm, and before I can even get to my feet she has taken my place in the saddle. Looking down she smiles before digging her heels in.
All along the hedge the dead are bursting through, their flesh scrammed and torn. Some are half-decayed whilst others are barely dead. I even recognise one dressed in the uniform of King Theissen, the man who I served and fought for only a week or so ago. They close in, starting to shamble across the road and causing me to stumble backwards.
“Emile.” My shout is both of anger and fear at the sight of her driving the black steed as fast as it can go. Though she shouts and screams to move it faster, half the road is swamped by the dead as far as the eye can see. I know she is aiming to beat the masses that will drag her down, flattening herself against the horse’s neck as its hooves drum against the road. Then, out of nowhere, a chestnut horse crashes through the hedge ahead of her, barely a cart’s length in front.
Her horse rears, screaming out in terror, everything around it finally too much for her. It tosses Emile from its back and onto the dusty ground. The two riders that sit upon the other mount try to hold on to their animal as it dances frantically, but the crazed movements are too much for the younger of the two who is also thrown, head striking the floor hard and leaving him lifeless on the ground.
And the undead close in.
“Victor, the hedge.”
The snapped warning is barely audible, the other soldier’s voice drowned out by the horse’s hooves as it tears up the ground. It is pointless anyway, for that is the way I ride, towards a small gap that could very well pull us from our animal. Arms reach out from all directions, frustrated voices howl out in a senseless cacophony, and the narrow space grows closer and closer.
The soldier screams out madly when the branches slash against us. Something whips my side as though I am being punished at the pillory. Thorns thrash across my cheek. He cries out, gripping me tightly, pinned to my sides, and then we are through the hedge and clearing the ditch that lies beyond. My mount lands with a thud on the dusty road that we had been heading for, the road that will take us back to Ancora, to home.
Without a chance to recover from the insane leap, my horse swerves frantically, a huge rearing horse causing it to swing sideways. The hooves kicking out, the eye shining with fear, and steam is snorted from its nostrils. All this makes it seem like some satanic demon for the devil’s riding. This image flashes before me, for no longer than the briefest of moments, then I am almost thrown from the saddle before regaining control of my animal.
But the soldier has fallen. I grip the reign tightly, tugging frantically to restrain my mount’s frightened movements. She leaps into the air, all four legs kicking out, then as she lands once again she twists her body and bucks. Every instinct as a rider kicks in and slowly I ease the panic out of her.
There is the other soldier, flat on the ground. Blood runs from a deep cut on his forehead where he obviously struck one of the many stones that litter the ground. Next to him, the jet-black horse stands, evidently unsure of the action it should take, and at its feet a woman shakes her head groggily. She slowly tries to stand, but stumbles from whatever injury she has taken. I can only assume that she fell from the rearing horse’s back. Her hair is long, tossed so unkempt that it hides her face even as she lifts it. But when she brushes it aside I recognise the face at once.
“Emile.” I mumble the name in complete shock. We have searched for the king’s daughter for so long and now we stumble upon her in such a peculiar manner. My eyes are fixed upon her face that now watches me, blue eyes and high cheek bones presenting such beauty that I understand why so many have fallen for her. I jump down from my mount, spear in hand, and glance at Karsten who is still not moving. He would not want me to lose her.
She looks across at me, my uniform clearly showing that I serve her father, then her eyes look to my right and widen in sudden surprise.
End of Chapter 1
After Death is Book 2 of a The Hunter Trilogy, available at Amazon.
Book 1 is Demon Rising, also available at Amazon.