(Go back to Part 8)
Your speed lies in patience,
Your cunning in simplicity,
Your power in surrender to the flame.
Do not oppose it.
All becomes the flame, in the end.”
–The Lexicon, Vorhall’s Letters To The Acolyte 8:13
Alex woke a few minutes after sunrise, shaken awake again by the sergeant. They struck camp without speaking, as if by mutual decision. Alex wasn’t about to break the silence, and apparently neither was McCann.
Her shoulder was still sore.
The next three days passed without incident. The road led South through scattered farmland and patches of forest, twisting and turning but never getting too far from the river. They forded it twice, horses splashing through the shallows that didn’t even come to their knees. It was quiet on the road; they didn’t see anyone else in either direction, and only spoke to each other when it was absolutely necessary.
On the afternoon of the third day they passed a Curate marker, showing the territory of another chapter house. “Good,” grunted McCann.
A quarter mile later, they passed through a village. Alex was looking forward to rest and a hot meal, but McCann passed by the village inn. He kept to the road instead, passing through without a glance at the stable. Alex bit her tongue and followed him.
She needn’t have worried. A mile further South the river widened again, stretching out in a lazy turn that took hundreds of yards to come around in a half circle before kinking abruptly to the South again. A raised wooden causeway stretched across the shallows from the road to a farm planted squarely in the fertile inner crescent created by the riverbend. McCann turned his horse aside at the “Reynolds” sign by the road and headed for the causeway.
“The Reynolds family. Friends of the Curate. We’ll stay here tonight,” he said by way of explanation, not bothering to look back at Alex.
The farmhouse was a rambling, many-leveled affair that had seen many generations of additions and differing architectural tastes. It was in good shape, though—freshly painted and stout, just like the two barns behind it—and new cedar shingles covered the kitchen. Light blue smoke rose from both chimneys, and the farmyard was occupied by half adozen people who rose when they saw the horses.
“Uncle ‘Cann! Uncle ‘Cann!”
A handful of children ran up to greet the sergeant as he dismounted on dry land. He was embarrassed; Alex smiled despite herself. The sergeant tried to ignore the children, but they grabbed his legs as soon as he dismounted and pulled on his cloak. “Mind the cloak!” he growled, to little effect.
“Hey! Back to your chores, you rowdy lot! It’s almost suppertime!” A plump woman appeared on the porch, armed with a mixing spoon and a brassy voice that could’ve commanded a regiment. “Don’t forget to wash up!” They scattered, running on bare feet across the yard.
“Sorry about that, Sergeant,” she said, turning to him, “but they’ve missed you.”
“Hrmmph,” McCann made an indecipherable noise in reply. The woman turned to Alex. “And who’s this?”
“One of Barrius’s cubs. Dropping her off with Riles,” grunted McCann.
“Does Barrius’s cub have a name, Sergeant?” the woman asked, raising an eyebrow at him.
“Alexis, or Alex, whichever you prefer, ma’am,” said Alex. “The Sergeant says you’re friends of the Curate. I hope we’re not intruding.”
“Oh, no, not at all. We’re glad to have you here, especially lately. I’m Greta, Greta Reynolds.” The woman introduced herself, and wiped off a hand on her apron before shaking Alex’s hand. She had a grip to match her voice.
“Especially lately?” asked Alex.
“Oh, just . . . well, you know. With Autumn coming.” The woman avoided her question. “You and the Sergeant can put the horses in the barn, and there’s plenty of room for you both up in the attic.”
“Thanks,” said Alex.
“And once you finish with the horses, wash up and come on in. Supper should be ready by then—oh the biscuits!” she cried, and rushed back inside.
McCann was already heading for the barn. Alex followed him.
At dinner Alex was introduced to the Reynolds clan. There were more than twenty people sitting at the long table, anchored by the trio of stout sisters with ready laughs and broad shoulders. Greta was one of them, along with Inga and Orta. Their husbands were all meek, quiet men, nearly apologetic as they shook Alex’s hand.
“Nice to meet you, Acolyte.”
“So good to have Curate nearby.”
“Yes, we see the Sergeant almost every year around this time.”
“Oh, you’re coming from Goodhollow?”
After three days of cold food (McCann allowed no fire after the encounter with the raiders) the hot meal was most welcome. Alex went to bed in the barn feeling warm and drowsy. As soon as her bedroll was spread in the hayloft, she collapsed into a deep sleep.
Midway through the night, Alex woke. She needed to relieve herself . . . stepping around McCann’s prone form, she slipped down the ladder.
Brutus was awake in the stable below. He whinnied once, softly, and nuzzled Alex hard with his nose.
“Whoa, big guy. Shh, it’s just me. You’ll wake the others! Shh!” she hissed as she rubbed Brutus’s neck. “It’s not like you to be up so late.” The horse quieted under Alex’s touch. “That’s better . . . get some sleep for tomorrow, big guy. You’ll need it.”
Alex watched as Brutus quieted back down. It was strange . . . she frowned once. Alex’s kit lay next to the stall; she buckled her swordbelt around her bare undershirt before heading outside.
It was cold outside; her pale legs prickled in the early autumn chill. Clasping her arms around herself, Alex hurried through the dark to the outhouse. The door creaked shut behind her, and she latched it.
As she sat, she listened for the usual night sounds. There were none—the fields were silent. There were no crickets, no frogs, nothing. She didn’t think it was cold enough yet to be this quiet . . . but wait, there was something. She strained her ears to hear it.
Someone was stumbling toward the outhouse through the weeds—but not from the house. They were coming from the fields. As she heard the uneven footsteps, things began to click together in her brain. Brutus, awake for no reason…The night, absent of sound…
A body smashed against the outhouse door. Alex was on her feet—she pulled up her shorts. A rattling moan came from the intruder, starting slow and quiet but building in mindless rage as he threw himself against the door a second time.
CRUNCH! A plank splintered—there was no doubt about it now.
Alex fastened her sword belt again around her waist. There wasn’t room in the crude shelter to draw her sword, but her knife was fourteen inches of tempered steel. It would have to do. She waited for her attacker to ram himself into the door again.
The whole outhouse shook with the ferocity of the impact. Alex slipped the latch and slammed the door open with her foot. It cracked against her attacker’s skull—a dark figure stumbled back in the dim light from the barn. Alex didn’t hesitate. She drew her knife and lunged forward while the figure struggled to keep its balance. Alex drove the knife home into an upturned eye socket, twisting once as the body went rigid. It collapsed to the ground, wracked with spasms. She caught a glimpse of one shattered arm, everything from the elbow down a mass of tangled sinew and tattered flesh.
Alex pulled the knife’s serrated edge from the creature, careful to avoid its mouth. As she stood she heard a chorus of moans. A crowd of dark shapes lurched around her, only a few arms’ lengths away and drawing closer. She drew her sword. The ring of steel sliding from its scabbard was a comforting sound.
“Sergeant! Sergeant!” Alex yelled at the top of her lungs. Lights started to appear in the buildings around her, and she could hear people yelling.
There were only two creatures between her and the barn—the rest were coming from the fields. Alex decided to attack them instead of waiting for the circle to close further. The one on the right fell to a sideways slash to the temple; the thin diamond crosssection of her blade slid easily from the shattered skull. She struck the other in the leg as it lunged at her—the monster went down face first. Alex felt a crunch underfoot as she stomped the creature’s neck into the ground. A two-handed downward thrust spilled its brains to the soil. It was wetter than the first, and a juicy slurp followed Alex’s sword as she withdrew it.
There was no time to waste—the others were nearly on her. She dodged one grasping arm and scurried past the corpses to the barn. Sergeant McCann appeared in the doorway, sword drawn.
“I don’t know. Half a dozen, maybe more.” Alex pointed behind her, gasping.
A shriek of pain came from the far side of the big house.
“Go!” McCann pointed to the building. “Go through the house! I’ll finish these.”
They went back outside. There were more than a dozen of them outside—more than Alex had originally thought. She wondered if the sergeant would need her help, but McCann pointed to the house. “Go!”
(Continue: Part 10)