(Go back to Part 24)
“A man killed in battle with the zombii is a loss of one man.
A man infected in battle is the loss of two men, unless he is dealt with swiftly.
A coward infected in battle is the loss of an army, if his infection is hidden.”
–The Lexicon, Mastersbook 119:12
They hugged the coast for another two weeks. Progress was slow—often the fleet would follow inlets and estuaries all the way inland before turning and retracing their steps.
The country changed slowly as they went. At the mouth of the river, the soil at the river’s edge was dark and fertile. Thick green foliage had kept the featureless dunes at bay. Here, though, the land was dry and rocky. Tough undergrowth and scraggly trees lined the slopes of the coast whenever they put ashore to refill the water casks. There were no people anywhere; hunting parties returned with the odd goat or quail, but mostly they dined on salted meat, flatbread, and bits of hard cheese.
“The Dry Coast,” McCann called it one day. “Few sail here. No reason to.”
But the baron pushed on. The flagship was alive with rumors as to his reasons; Ross shared some with Alex a few days later. “Some say treasure. Some say weapons or powerful relics. Some say a lost city of the ancients!”
“Whatever it is,” replied McCann when Alex passed on the rumors, “it’s bound to be infected. Heading out this far out into unsettled territory is pure foolishness.”
“I haven’t seen any of them from the ship.”
“They scatter when there’s no prey. We’ll see plenty enough when we land.”
A few days later they came to a long, narrow, windswept headland that stretched far out into the sea. At the end of it was a tall stone cairn, partly collapsed. It was the first man-made structure Alex had seen since leaving Fâl Selim. Baron Sinclair snapped shut his spyglass as soon as they saw it, and they anchored in its shadow. “Tomorrow, we land.”
It took all day to land the baron’s army. Boats plied the waters of the cove in endless circuits, scraping up onto the pebble beach to deposit cargoes of men and material. Soldiers swore at donkeys, while casks of wine and water were floated up onto land. A small stone house with no roof was discovered just inland, overlooking a stream and covered in tangled undergrowth. Men were soon set to clearing and expanding it.
Alex joined McCann at a small fire that evening. “Goddamn, I’m sore. Been hauling around damn rocks all day.” Somewhere in the desert she had picked up McCann’s habit of easy blasphemy. “Sinclair wants a blockhouse big enough for a hundred.”
McCann grunted. “Yeah?”
“He’s leaving that many behind to guard the ships, while the rest march.”
“Not a bad idea. Don’t want to get cut off.”
“Still haven’t seen any of them.”
“We will.” He pulled the rabbit off the fire and tore apart a chunk with his teeth before handing the spit to Alex. “Here, it’s better than salt pork.”
“Thanks.” Alex did the same. “Still don’t know where we’re marching to, though. Nobody does.”
“Well, it’ll be inland, at least,” he said.
“Mmm?” she asked.
“Makes no sense to march when we could sail,” reasoned McCann.
There was a rustle—the men next to them stood. Alex and McCann followed suit, anticipating the presence of an officer. General Clovis stopped in front of their fire and glowered at them.
“General.” Alex let McCann do the talking.
“The baron commands you to join him in the van tomorrow morning.”
“Did he say why?” asked McCann.
“It’s not my habit to question orders, Sellsword, and neither should it be yours.” Clovis did not care for them; that much was clear.
McCann shrugged. “It’s no difference to me. We’ll be there.”
Clovis stalked off into the scattered darkness of campfires on the beach. McCann looked back to Alex. “Looks like we’d better get some rest.”
The baron’s column formed up the next morning into groups of a hundred men each. McCann and Alex were in the first group with General Clovis, Minister Turin, several dozen soldiers, and the baron himself. They were the only mercenaries in the group; McCann never lost his careless scowl, but Alex could tell he was worried.
There was no track, but the army followed the streambed inland, shifting from side to side as one was more accessible than the other. Sinclair rode first, with Turin and the book. They paused often to examine boulders and exposed rock faces. Alex paused once to look for herself and found a faint arrow carved into the stone.
They left the stream on the second day, following the markers up into the hills. A great plume of dust rose from the massed feet as they trudged through the dry scrubland up into the pass. Alex missed Brutus as blisters began to rise on her feet.
On the fourth day, there was a long, low moan in the hills nearby that was cut off midway.
“Not fast enough.” McCann cursed to himself. “Dammit, Sinclair’s outriders don’t know what they’re doing.”
“What do you mean?” asked Alex.
“You have to kill them quick and quiet if you don’t want to alert the others. See, listen—”
The moan was answered by others, further away, and those answered by still more. Soon the column was surrounded by the sound. Soldiers fell silent and started checking their swords.
“Detach a rearguard. Order the rest of the column into the pass, double-time,” ordered the baron. “We’ll hold there and take care of this nuisance.” He pointed up to a split in the ridgeline ahead.
General Clovis saluted and turned back to command the rearguard. The rest of the army broke into a nervous shuffle.
Soon the sounds of singing could be heard behind them, joining the chorus of moans. Alex turned to McCann, asking a question with her eyes.
“Clovis has the men singing to buy us time,” McCann panted. “It will keep their attention—they’re slow, so as soon as they catch up the rearguard will come back and join the column. We’ll be ready for them by then.”
“Is it a good plan?” she asked him.
McCann grunted. “Depends on how many of them there are. The ground favors us; I’ve seen worse.”
They reached the narrow pass as dusk began to fall. Most of the moaning came from behind them now, following the noisy rearguard. The Baron’s men circled the supplies and animals in the narrowest part of the pass and tied the animals down.
Alex took a look around. The pass itself sloped down on either side, to the north and south. The bluffs rose up on the west and east sides of the pass, impossible to climb. McCann was right; it was good ground.
“Three groups can hold each approach,” ordered Sinclair, “with three more behind. I want the rest guarding animals and supplies. Get some fires lit—it won’t do to fight in the dark.”
It wasn’t easy to get the tough, scraggly brush to burn well, but soon there were a few passable bonfires in each approach. The baron chose his own group to hold the center of the southern approach, where the attack would be heaviest. The inexperienced units went to the north. Soldiers organized themselves, surveyed the ground, and checked their weapons yet again. They made awkward small talk among themselves. No one had any appetite with the constant chorus of moans coming from the hills around them.
Finally there was nothing to do but wait.
Night fell. Alex and McCann sat at the edge of the baron’s unit, leaning on broken rocks. The sergeant had somehow recreated his usual careless slump without the aid of either table or chair. Alex hunched over, reaching for the hilt of her sword with every other movement in the dark beyond.
“Not how you imagined your first real battle, I’d wager,” growled McCann, breaking the silence.
“I thought I’d be wearing different colors,” admitted Alex. She dared not say more with the others so close.
“Yes. Well.” He cleared his throat. “It won’t matter much to them. You’ll be fine,” he added, “just keep your head down and don’t do anything stupid.” McCann settled lower into his slouch. “Wake me up when they get here,” he said, and went to sleep.
Alex marveled for a moment at McCann’s total lack of concern. Soon soft snores were coming from the sergeant’s mouth. It helped make Alex feel a little calmer.
But only a little. The constant moaning still surrounded them, a shattered chorus forced through brittle vocal chords and clinging globs of phlegm. McCann was alone in his complacency; the other soldiers were as nervous as Alex was. It sounded like the horde was right on top of them, but still they were invisible.
Alex wished they would show themselves. Waiting was worse than fighting. One man nearby was holding a charm and repeating the same prayer to himself over and over again.
An hour later, there was a clatter of noise at the bottom of the slope. Alex and the other soldiers reached for their weapons, but it was only General Clovis and the rearguard. They were splattered with blood and bile, but were mostly intact.
“General Clovis!” Baron Sinclair’s voice boomed out through the darkness. He met the General halfway.
“Milord.” Clovis brought a closed fist to his mouth in salute, chest heaving. “They’re right behind us. Many thousands, we couldn’t count in the dark.”
“Very well. Take your men and join the reserve. Treat the wounded and destroy any who have been infected.” He turned to the bulk of the army. “Men! Form up!”
Alex moved to wake McCann, but the sergeant was already up. The soldiers swirled around them, forming lines in their appointed positions. McCann pointed to a bonfire right in front of them. “That’s our spot. Once the fighting starts, meet me there. Don’t stray far.”
“Alright—”the word stuck in her mouth—the horde had arrived.
The first one was old, gray, and naked. Most of its skin was missing due to wear and weather, and the twisted fibers of old muscle were visible down his thighs. One forearm flopped down, useless with bones jutting from the elbow at strange angles. One eye was a black void, but the other was still plump in the wasted face, milky white with no pupil. Both cheeks were torn open to reveal black, broken molars.
The corpse shambled forward, single good arm stretched toward them. It was joined by a second, and another, and another, and another until the pass was full of them. They knocked together shoulder to shoulder, pressing forward, pushing over one another in a writhing gray mass of sightless eyes and dangling limbs.
“Good work,” muttered McCann.
“What?” asked Alex, jolted back into herself. Her heart was racing.
“Clovis. Getting them packed together like this. Makes it easier,” grunted McCann.
There was no smell—only the constant, rattling moan that grew louder and louder until Alex felt like it was filling her eyes and ears. She wanted to run, to get away, but the rolling sigh of a thousand broken voices rooted her to the spot, froze her arms and legs—
“DRAW!” The booming voice of Baron Sinclair cut through the night. The three hundred men on either side of Alex drew their blades in a hiss of ringing steel. Alex found her own blade in her hand without knowing how it got there.
“FORWARD!” The line moved ahead, opening up to give each man fighting space. Alex picked her way over the rocks as the horde approached the bonfires.
“CHAAAAAARGE!” The soldiers of Sinclair’s army broke into a run, screaming wordless yells as they fell upon the horde. Alex screamed along with them. The swordsman next to her cleaved his first victim nearly in two with a massive overhand strike; Alex attacked her own with a more cautious thrust through the eye socket. Both fell in a spray of gray-black brain matter, and then battle was met.
(Go on to Part 26)