Leaving Roman Roads
As we ventured out into the wilderness, we were surprised to see no dead at all. Although we have a fair idea of how many there might be out there based on the one or two we see each journey on the other side of the fence, we are raised in every village in every community being told that the wastelands are literally crawling with them behind every tree and under every bush. But there were none. It was surprising, especially after all the noise we’d just made cutting the hole to get through the fence. The three carts stayed close. I got back in my spot under cover on the pole cart but Passalus and Acmon were fast to ask me to help them again as soon as I got near them.
“It’s amazing! Please, boy, just one more pipe! Especially now! You know they’ll toss us out as a decoy at the first sight of the dead!” Acmon said in a drunken stupor.
I felt bad for them. So, again, I filled their pipes, which fortunately still had burning coals at the bottom. If I’d had to start from scratch and light another fire for them, I probably wouldn’t have. I put their coals in the tinder box and got some dry grass from beside the road. I blew on the coals and the grass caught fire. I used a small piece of rope to light the pipes once I had stuffed them.
I watched as they puffed madly at them. They weren’t what I would consider to be stupid, like Ben. These two were quite clever in a certain way, but in the short time we’d known them we realised that they were actually quite cunning and self-centred. Alexis calls them survivalists. He says that they’re the kinds of people who always take anything they can get their hands on to get ahead, and they’ll sell you out for a small gain, whereas being loyal might give them much bigger rewards down the track. They both have blue eyes, which is also strange for people from Pan, but they were bloodshot to hell and they almost glowed now because of the pipes I’d given them. They were both staring at me, puffing away. They actually looked a fair bit like the dead do, as they trudged along, rhythmically, staring at me. Puffing madly. Then Ben raised the first alarm.
“Dead over there!”
It was off in the trees, but it came straight at us. A woman, about 30, long dark hair and skinny. She was a wilderness person once, and was still wearing all the clothes she died in. Her stomach was hanging out at the bottom and her left hand was missing. She ran at a fast pace and Boss jumped down with his sword. He positioned himself ready to execute his precision move, as he placed the handle of his sword on his shoulder and the blade level with her head. She ran straight into it, skewering herself through the forehead. She fell to her knees and she hit the floor. I saw another.
“Boss – over this side!” I only saw one of them to begin with, but as it came at us through the trees it was followed by two others. The first one had a broken leg or something that made it drag one leg along behind it. He was a big fat guy with no hair. He was wearing trousers, so I guessed that he was from one of the communities once. They were all torn up now and dirty, so you wouldn’t be able to tell what style or fashion they were at any point. But they weren’t wilderness people clothing. He was followed by a young boy who had been dead for a while, and then up the back was a creature like I’d never seen before! It had almost no skin at all and was wasted away to just bone in a lot of places. It was very slow moving. So slow in fact that I didn’t think it would even catch up to us at all. Boss looked over at me and then at the dead coming toward us.
“Do you have a sword”’
“Yes,” I answered, without thinking.
“Well then go and take care of them! You can do it!” He instructed. My heart started pounding as I got down off the tailgate. Passalus and Acmon were giggling at me. I glared at them and kept walking. I’d never actually killed one by myself with a sword. I considered finding a tree to climb so I could jump onto them like I did last time, but that would take too long. As I walked, my body grew tense in every place. I clasped the sword with both hands as tightly as I could. I stormed toward the fat one as he staggered toward me. His arms were outstretched as far as they could reach. I stopped just before him and waited for him to drag himself on his good leg into my striking zone. The young boy was much faster and he was approaching quickly. I stood, waiting, ready to strike, and then I heard Boss.
“Do it!! Hurry!!”
I didn’t take my eyes off the big one. I just kept moving my weight from leg to leg, getting more and more tense. It took two more steps and then I took my first swipe at it. But it wasn’t close enough. I cut heavily into its chest and arms, but it didn’t even slow down! I raised the sword again and hacked straight down, hitting him right between the eyes. But it still didn’t stop. I didn’t hit it hard enough. I pulled the sword out and ran back. I was going to stop about halfway back to the others, turn and fight again, but to them it looked like I was running away. May came bounding out with her Rapier and flew past me. She glided off the ground in a long leap as she got alongside me and sailed through the air to the fat one. She landed the point of her sword between his eyes, felling it instantly. But she didn’t see the smaller one behind him and she tripped on it, falling heavily on her side and then rolling. The boy also fell over, but it got up quickly. More quickly than she was going to. Suddenly my mind went totally clear, and I ran toward her. I jumped over the carcass of the fat one, and as the young boy walked toward May, making its half formed word noises and swiping at the air with its hands, I slashed horizontally, hitting the back of its head while I was still in the air. The blade cut up into the top of his back, but up into its neck and skull as well. It fell forward and it landed on May’s feet and legs. Its black blood went all over her and she scrambled backwards to get away from it. She looked up at me and put out her hand. I heaved her up and she retrieved her Rapier. The third one posed no problem to any of us. It was kind of just wobbling in our direction. But all the same, she went over to it and slashed at the back of its neck with her sword and dropped it. The wagons were a fair way off by this stage. They hadn’t stopped for us and we needed to get back to them as quickly as we could. We looked around and saw no present danger as we started walking towards the wagons. May looked at me and gave me a smile that made me feel good.
We jogged back to the wagons. I looked at the end of the line and saw the two small children with the Professor. They both had swords that looked as big as they did. They were jogging along on either side of their horse. I suppose they were about five or six years old. They were wearing tiny leather armour and helmets too. I hadn’t ever seen armour like theirs. It was basically leather panels that covered each major part of their body and was laced with leather. I guess at a pinch it would stop the dead from biting them if they were bitten on a forearm or thigh.
I looked behind us as we jogged along and saw that there were two more coming at us. They didn’t seem like they would be such a problem. It was the dozens we were starting to see coming out of the wilderness up ahead that seemed to be concerning the horses more. As we reached the Professor’s wagon, Boss cracked his whip, making Ben do the same thing. We went faster, knocking over two of the dead as we went. One flew off the front of the horse while the other slammed into the front of the pole cart, splatting everywhere. The brothers were starting to run as fast as they could now, as the straps that kept them tied to the tailgate of the cart kept them moving at the same pace, and I yelled out to Boss.
“Oi!! I need to cut these two free or bring them on board!! You’re going too fast now!! They can’t keep up!!”
He turned his head for a moment and then drew his horse to full stop. There were three creatures lurking nearby, all female. As soon as we stopped they came at us. All of them were older women, and two of them wore parts of skins in various ways. Alexis sliced at them and silently put them down in seconds while Boss walked back to us. He looked at Passalus and Acmon, huffing and puffing. They were totally out of it. Their minds were flying from the leaves they’d just smoked. He watched them for a moment and furrowed his brow with concern.
“I swear to god – They’ll get us all killed one way or another.” Boss looked to our left. There were at least a dozen creatures coming our way and some of them were moving quite quickly too. He looked at the lashings on the brothers and saw that they were still quite tight, so he picked Passalus up in a bear hug from the middle of his hips and heaved him onto the back of the cart, then did the same thing to Acmon. They landed on the back with a thud and then they both giggled. Boss shook his head with a cross expression on his face and quickly began marching back to the front of the wagon to resume. Alexis had begun walking toward a large male creature that was coming straight at the home cart. To his surprise, though, he was beaten to it by one of the children. The small girl, the younger of the two. She seemed to fly through the air and slammed her half size sword straight into the side of the creature’s head. Alexis stopped and his face was interesting to see because I’d never seen him genuinely surprised like that before. I’ve seen him pretend to be surprised plenty of times, but never actually surprised.
“Wow!” I said to Boss. ‘Where’d a kid that age learn how to do that?’
“Same place that Alexis did. From the Professor.” he answered and smiled.
The kid smiled directly at me like she had just won a prize, then ran back to the Professor’s wagon. I didn’t know what the Professor did for a living, but I knew that he was a Mountebank. They specialise in a wide range of selling potions and tonics, along with other small instruments at market places. It made sense that he had with him two Merry Andrews. More to the point, he was old. About twice as old as Alexis, and certainly old enough to be Boss’ father. I wondered if he was the same Mountebank that took Boss on as a Merry Andrew when he was a small boy too. It would explain how he knew Alexis.
More dead were coming from the other side of the wagons, and Ben raised the alarm by yelling a sound of some sort. It wasn’t quite a word, more a groan of fear. He’s such a coward.
I got back down and looked but it wasn’t just one or two, it was more like twenty or thirty! There were so many of them. Boss jumped down from the drive-seat and came to me as quickly as he could. “You’ll need to do a better job than your last shot, mate. You can do this! I know it. Just time your steps and strike two before you get there. I need to protect the horse. As soon as there’s a chance to go, I’ll whistle and we’ll move. We can’t go yet or they’ll attack the Professor as he passes. Get going!”
I looked at them. They were all coming as fast as they could, but most had been dead a long time by the look of them. Interestingly though, there was a small person with them. A midget. The kind that are born like that. Boss saw it too and I saw his face. It was almost down to the bones on its knees where there should be skin. Boss stopped for a split second when he saw it and I knew what he was about to do.
“Elijah – you need to keep that one alive. Throw a tarp on it and keep it! We’ll show it!” I groaned.
May was near me now, which made me feel a bit better about the fact that the first of them were now only about twenty paces away from us. They were all wilderness people apart from one. A red headed woman in her late fifties I guess. Quite fat too. The first one of them came at me. A man only. Bit taller than me. I counted my steps and struck when I was two paces away from him, and he fell. A perfect hit. Then May hit one in the side of the neck. It fell too. Jeremy and Alexis were patrolling the front of the carriage with Boss, as the dead seemed to be more attracted to the horses then the wagons. I felt good for a moment about the creature I had just killed. I looked to make sure that the dwarf one was still coming our way. It was up the back and was still coming, but it was slower and kept falling because it’s knees had been damaged somehow. But as I saw it approaching, my eyes looked further back into the woods. What at first appeared to be shadows turned out to be hundreds behind it. Too many for us to take. I looked over at Boss. He’d seen them too.
“Quick! Cut Acmon and Passalus free. They’re our escape! QUICK, DO IT!” he yelled. May and I ran to them. They were still lying in the back of the wagon, smoking the last of their pipes and we sliced at the ropes with our swords. May pushed Acmon in our direction. Over the other side I could see Alexis slicing and stabbing with two swords as just as many dead approached from that side too. I led Passalus toward the oncoming dead.
“What’s wrong with them?!’” She yelled at me. It was getting hard to hear her over the sounds of the moaning dead.
“I gave them leaves to smoke and it’s made their minds fly away.”
Her face showed surprise, but her mind returned instantly to the task at hand; feeding Acmon and Passalus to the dead. We got them into a light jog and then let them go. Boss jumped back into the drive seat ready to roll, but then he stopped. The first creature came alongside Acmon, but it took no interest in him at all. Acmon was laughing loudly now and jogging along, then Passalus began laughing also, and they ran right into the incoming dead. The creatures turned as they ran past and followed them, because the dead are attracted to the noises that the living make, but they didn’t at all try and stop them, catch them or most of all, eat them. They just followed them because they were making noise.
“What the hell!?” Boss said as he stood up in the driving range of the carriage. Boss’ plan was working, inasmuch that the dead were following the brothers away from us, but they weren’t interested in catching or eating them. In fact, several of them quickly got up alongside the brothers, and broke into a jog alongside them. This only serves to make the brothers scream more intensely, which in turn made the dead cluster themselves more closely to the brothers in an effort to be closer to the source of the sound. It became a sight that none of us could’ve ever have imagined, as the dead mobbed the brothers until they both disappeared from sight
“I can explain how that happens, Boss!” I yelled proudly. Then he turned to me with a look of panic.
“The Midget! Where did it go!?”
Boss was disappointed.
Forward the wagons charged, bouncing about on the unpaved surface, dodging stumps and fallen branches and occasionally crashing through shrubs. It was hard to see where Boss was taking us and I was sure we were going to lose the wagon completely at one point, or more likely break an axle or wheel when we went down a steep slope. The problem with going downhill in a wagon is that the wagon will quickly outrun the horses and hit them or push them and spook them and make them run in sideways directions. But what began as a steep downhill slope covered with low hanging branches, quickly pulled back up steeply to take us up the other side. Fortunately the sound of the dead had faded somewhat behind us, though we could still hear them enough to know that we couldn’t slow or stop. Over the next two hours we kept the horses at an even trot. The trees became more sparse and the ground became harder clay. I thought about the twins a little. Wondered what their endings would be like. We had almost begun to relax a little as we travelled on, when suddenly we were in a clearing of sorts. As we came past a line of trees we were suddenly in an open area. The wagons stopped because the horses had stopped themselves, not because they were told to. Boss cracked his whip and they lurched into a walk again.
I stood up and saw that we were on an open and long dirt road that went straight in both directions for miles. No fence at all, but a road that was clearly used. I could see May on the doorstep of the home cart behind us and she was also very surprised by what she saw. The path wasn’t made for wagons though. More of a wide walking track and quite uneven with potholes along it.
Steadily Boss began picking up the pace and the horses broke into a canter. I was still looking back at May when I noticed that the horse pulling the home cart was starting to buck as it went. They were tired and needed water. I looked at Boss. He was sitting with a straight back, but with his shoulders rounded. It’s the way you need to sit while steering a horse on a wagon. He looked strong and confident. For some reason I knew he had a plan. He always has a plan.