Chapter 2 Excerpt from The Siege of Anticus: A Zombie Fantasy Novel
As before, this excerpt is heavily unedited. It is a flashback of the aftermath of the attack on Daneswall.
The flames from the burning town behind Comrick set the planes of his son’s face shifting constantly, giving him the look of a stranger. The old man kept trying to count how many survivors ranged ahead, but the half-panicked and struggling mass ahead of him defied his attempts. Those last moments in the church resurfaced in his mind, over and over, the sacrifice of two men whom he’d come to love sending tears to eyes still stinging from smoke. The desire to honor that heroism kept his legs moving even more than the fear of being caught by the shambling remnants of the horde.
After an hour or more of stumbling in the darkness, the pack of refugees ahead of him seemed to come to an immediate halt. As the wounded slumped groaning to the ground ahead of him, Comrick and Kell exchanged glances. His son nodded and pushed his way through the press, calling out questions about the sudden stop.
Kell returned minutes later and shrugged. “Seems like one person just stopped, and everyone around did the same. Anders didn’t see anything, and had to ride back when he realized they’d stopped following.” The nobleman had taken point, using his lantern as a beacon for the mass of villagers behind him as well as a means to scan the road ahead for more of the undead things. “Mirwyn said the animals weren’t spooked, so it must be exhaustion. I’ll drop back and keep an eye behind us.”
Comrick nodded silently as his son slipped into the darkness behind them. Sighing wearily, he moved forward to check on each of the wounded, speaking to every villager he could, his warm and reassuring tone having little effect on the vacant staring eyes that looked up at him. As he went along, he tallied the number of survivors. Seventy-six men women and children walked out of that village, a third or less of those who’d woken up that morning.
Ahead of him lay another pack, full of quiet bleating, lowing, and whickering. The animals had fared far better than their masters, a testament to both the urges of the attackers and the work of the woman who watched over them. As Comrick moved over to the woodswoman, her trio of dogs surrounded him welcomingly, the youngest trying to incite him to play. I pray the others have the resiliency inherent in these beasts, he thought, feeling little hope in that regard.
Mirwyn didn’t look over at him as he approached. Instead, her gaze rested on the road behind them. The set of her jaw and flat eyes made the rage within her readily apparent to the Talebearer, who could almost feel the cold waves radiating out from the short woman. Even her ever-present pack felt it, their ears flattening as they lay quietly back down at her feet as Comrick reached her.
He laid a careful hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently through the soft leather. Her rage had never exploded at him personally, but he had seen it erupt before, and he knew that he wanted no part of its fury directed towards him. Still, if it meant that she’d release some of the building pressure within her, then he was more than willing to become her target to save her and anyone else caught in the blast sure to come.
“He chose his path,” Comrick said to her softly. “Remember that always, lass. He chose to save those that he could, including you. He wanted you safe and whole and able to escape that horror. Accept that last gift from him.”
Mirwyn turned slowly towards him, the glint of anger in her eye cold enough to quench flame. “How dare he choose for me?” she hissed through clenched teeth. “He had no right. None. I choose. If I want to die in some shithole village with him, that’s my decision. Not his.” She turned her gaze back to the village in the distance, an orange glow on the horizon and nothing more.
Knowing that nothing he could say would change her mood or coax out her anger, Comrick squeezed her shoulder once more and walked softly away. Her rage will be vented only when finds his body, he thought.
He edged slowly around the pack of animals gathered in a loose circle on the road. The youngest and weakest were in the center, each successive ring marking a larger and stronger animal, with the few horses the village boasted the outermost ring. Outside the circle the village dogs were alertly watching the darkness around them, as if the herding instinct in some of them had spread to all. Comrick knew that Mirwyn had a way with animals, but never before had he seen the full extent of her harmonic ties with nature. He noted that the dogs did not encircle the mass of people to keep watch, only on her beloved creatures.
Comrick ended his journey at the nobleman’s horse. The steed stood over the sleeping form of Comrick’s wife Calla as if keeping watch. Mikel had rolled a cloak and placed it under her head as she lay, still asleep or unconscious. He knelt next to her for a time, talking softly to her still form, brushing away the stray hairs the capricious wind blew across her face. His shoulders hunched as he spoke to her, already feeling the weight of the burden he knew was his to carry.
Eventually, he rose stiffly, legs protesting the abuse they’d already had to endure, and made his way to the circle of light and the young nobleman who crouched just outside of it. Mikel Anders’ fingers tapped a nervous rhythm on the stock of his loaded crossbow as he stared out into the night, the lantern behind him. The young nobleman nodded at Comrick as the older man went down a knee beside him.
“I cannot thank you enough, my friend,” Comrick began, his voice a pleasant rumble, “for keeping her safe and whole. I am, and will always be, in your debt.”
“Well, then it’s a good thing we stopped, then,” Mikel responded, “since I was about to dump her on the road to keep my horse fresh. I might need to get away in a hurry.” The slight smile and echo of his normal cheeriness belied his words, and Comrick knew it was just the young man’s normal self-deprecatory posturing.
“Then I am lucky indeed,” Comrick answered, “that there has been no need for haste.” He paused, searching for words before finally saying, “I hate to impose upon you, my friend, or your horse….”
Mikel’s short bark of a laugh cut him off. “I’ve got her,” he said, slapping his hand on Comrick’s back.
The Talebearer nodded his thanks, not trusting his voice, and rose. “I’ll see to the others. We’ll probably need to move on soon. There is a place off the road ahead, a flat-topped hill, which will give us a better chance for longer and safer rest. You will see a pair of large white stones beside the road marking it.”
The nobleman nodded and stood, scooping up the lantern and returning to the horse. He slung the crossbow and lantern on the pommel of his saddle and bent to lift Calla into the saddle. Between them, they managed to secure her long enough for Mikel to swing up behind her. Settling her weight against his chest, the nobleman picked up the reins and turned to face forward again, eyes already searching the darkness.
Comrick made his way back through the refugee train, stopping to rest a hand on Mirwyn’s arm and to whisper, “Soon.” A curt nod was his only reply. He threaded his way through the densely packed villagers, huddled together for protection like sheep in a storm, whispering encouragement and preparing them to stand for another short journey. As he reached the wounded, he saw some who would not be making the trek any further, their remaining family kneeling around them silently weeping. With a quiet sigh, Comrick steeled himself to the task of moving the survivors along.
Shortly after, Kell returned from his rearguard position. He locked eyes with his father and pointed a finger towards the front of the makeshift column, eyebrows raised. At Comrick’s short nod, he tucked his spear into one elbow and clapped his hands together loudly. “All right,” he said, his voice carrying in the stillness, “time to move on.” Obediently, the pack of refugees stirred themselves and began moving forward once more, following the bobbing lantern light ahead. None of them turned to look back at the bodies of those they’d left behind.
The hours passed slowly and painfully as they walked. Some of the wounded moaned louder, lost in fever, sending a chill down Comrick’s back from the remembrance of the stalking horde. He saw a young woman stagger to one knee as she lagged, alone, and he swiftly caught her arm and placed it over his shoulder, helping her along. He murmured encouraging words to her as they walked, until he noticed the crude bandage wound around her head. Only then did he recognize her.
Flashing in front of his eyes, he saw the young woman in the church hours before, screaming as her dead son tore her ear from the side of her head with his teeth. He could still hear the obscene crunching of cartilage between the boy’s teeth just before Liard had smashed through the once-innocent face with his heavy iron hammer. Derus, the boy was, he remembered, and this is Herinna, the miller’s daughter, wed to her father’s long-time apprentice.
As he walked, threads of disquiet snaked their way through his veins. She’d carried her son into the church dead already, and in a matter of hours he had become one of the ravenous undead. The one-time traveler had been through many plague-infested areas, and knew well the insidious way contagion spread. The thought that any of their people killed by those things would rise as one of them chilled Comrick to his marrow. Is our home now filled with our own restless dead? He hoped that the flames would consume the village entirely, leaving nothing behind but char and ash, but the heaviness in his heart told him that it was not likely to be.