(Go back to Part 28)
The world immediately hushed around her. The thick greenery muffled most sounds. She was left alone with the chirp of birds and a cloud of white butterflies disturbed by her descent. The hush surrounded her, thick and heavy as the air, but it wasn’t as threatening as the deadly calm of the swamp. Here the air was laced with the perfume of strange flowers instead of the musk of rotting wood, and the bright colors of foliage replaced the sickly grays and browns of murky swamp water. It was quiet, but Alex felt at ease—protected, even.
Silent buildings with empty windows gaped up at her as she walked along the wall. White tiles, cracked and shattered by time, lay amid piles of rubble inside gaping doorways. Abandoned tools were scattered in the weeds, rusted away nearly to nothing. Here and there a sign was still legible, but the characters were in the old language.
At the southern corner of the wall was a blocky tower. The walkway pierced it halfway up; Alex passed through the arch into the dim interior and a spiral stair. She climbed to the top, where a covered platform ran all the way around. From here she could see far into the swamp—it stretched away in every direction, unbroken except for the river.
A bit of color was visible back the way she came. The baron’s column was hacking their way around the perimeter of the complex. The top of the tower was otherwise empty except for an abandoned bird’s nest and few splinters of cracked concrete. She headed back down and out the other side of the tower to continue along the wall—
—except the walkway had collapsed only a few feet past the tower, leaving a gap that was too large for Alex to jump across. The wall was still solid, but the rampart walkway had collapsed in a sheer slope of rubble. She thought about crawling across; the footing was treacherous, but exposed rebar might be enough to hold on to, and it was better than retracing her steps to the swamp.
Alex took a few steps onto the broken concrete. Stones shifted underfoot, but it held. She took a few more steps . . .
The concrete collapsed without warning. Alex flung her arms out, trying to gain purchase, but the rough stones slipped through her fingers. She fell, swept over the edge, and landed in a cloud of dust and rubble, hands over her head to ward off the debris.
After a moment, everything was quiet again. She opened her eyes. Nothing hurt—in fact, she hadn’t even scraped her hands. Alex’s landing had been cushioned by a patch of tall, soft grass, a strange plant that she’d never seen before. She dusted herself off.
In front of her were the ruins of a series of greenhouses. The trees inside had long since grown out through the shattered glass roofs and their branches hung out over the frames, heavy with unfamiliar fruit. The insides of the greenhouses were packed with descendants of the original plantings—strange flowers, vines, cacti, shrubs, and other things Alex couldn’t begin to recognize. She paused in front of the nearest greenhouse and eyed the fruit hanging within reach. There was a rumble from her stomach, but she hesitated.
It was like no fruit she’d ever heard described by the sergeant, or anyone else. It was a soft yellow in color and about the size of an apple, but the skin was fuzzy like a peach and warm to the touch. The shape was long, thick at the top and bottom but narrow in the center. She had no idea if it was safe to eat.
Alex’s stomach rumbled again, and she had an idea. She picked the fruit and sliced it into a few pieces with her knife. The only seeds were clustered up near the stem, while the rest of the fruit was firm and pale. A clear liquid dropped from its flesh. She tossed the pieces up onto the walkway above.
Within a few minutes, the birds were fighting over the scraps. Alex shrugged. “If it’s good enough for you . . .” She plucked another fruit and bit into it.
The flesh was sweet, but not too sweet. The fruit had a pleasant taste, and a fibrous weight that melted on the tongue. It was delicious. She picked another on her way through the greenhouses.
It was late afternoon by the time that the baron and his men reached the gate. Alex sat, perched on one of the ruined steel doors, stomach full of fruit and in need of a nap. She spread her arms wide as they came into view, weary and covered in mud.
“Welcome! Welcome to Port Alexis! I hoped you’d make it before dinnertime.”
McCann was not amused. “Dammit, Alex, if you—”
But the baron was laughing. “Port Alexis! Ha ha ha!” He wiped his eyes. “You are a bold one, aren’t you? Though you were first over the wall,” he mused, “. . . very well, Port Alexis it is!”
“Hungry? What about you, Father?” She tossed a few of the strange fruit down to the baron and the sergeant, emphasizing the word “father.”
“What is this . . . thing?” Minister Turin picked one of them up and turned it over in his hands.
“Don’t worry, they’re safe to eat. I’ve had four already,” said Alex.
“Alex! You at the fruit without—” McCann was turning purple.
“Relax, I made sure that the birds would eat it first.”
“But how can we—”
The baron bit into his with a noisy squelch. He chewed. “That’s good. What are they?”
“I’m not familiar with this particular fruit, Milord,” said Turin. He took a tentative nibble of his own. McCann and General Clovis declined to taste theirs.
“Where did you find these? Are there more?” the Baron asked Alex.
“Lots more. I passed three huge orchards on the way here.”
“Good. The men will appreciate fresh rations.” He motioned the column forward through the gate.
“Alex! What else did you see? Anything dangerous? Animals? Zombii? We need to be prepared if—”
“Nothing larger than a sparrow. No tracks, no droppings, no bones . . . and no zombii. You can relax, Father, this place is safe.” Alex slid down the door. She was barefoot and smiling; there were no thorns inside the compound. “Can’t you feel it? Something watches over this place. Some spirit, maybe.”
“Spirits!” McCann spat once on the ground. “That’s the stock I take in spirits.”
But the other soldiers looked reassured. They nudged and muttered to each other, and relaxed as they passed through the gate. A few even smiled or cracked jokes. Alex could see it in their faces; after the battle in the pass and the endless horrors of the swamp, they were ready to believe that the compound was protected by something.
By nightfall, everything that was left of the baron’s host was inside the walls. Alex and McCann shared a room in one of the empty concrete buildings that was partly open to the sky. There was room for three times their number in the outer ruins alone—no one had yet dared the inner complex’s gate. Most were busy digging ditches and sharpening stakes to guard the gate, as the huge steel doors were beyond repair. “Spirits or no, best we keep an eye on that entrance,” grumbled McCann.
“But look how safe it is! There’s only one way in!”
“Aye. And only one way out.”
As evening fell, torches and campfires appeared around the camp. Soldiers took off their boots and propped their feet as close to the flames as they dared, drying for the first time in weeks. Some seared sweet corn over the fires, picked from a field inside the compound (and strangely in season). Singing picked up here and there from some of the hardier souls, but most that weren’t on duty collapsed and slept.
Alex and McCann were sitting around one of the fires when General Clovis found them. McCann had just cracked a smile, finally, at the mention of ale; “Come to think of it, that’s about the only thing missing right now,” he said as he burned his hands on a bit of bacon still popping and dripping grease.
“You! Sellswords!” Clovis was not smiling. The other soldiers scrambled to attention.
“Yeah?” drawled McCann, continuing to munch on the bacon.
“The baron wants to see you both.”
“Now?” asked McCann, looking at his bacon.
“Now!” said Clovis.
“All right.” McCann sighed and stood. “Here, hold this.” He gave the bacon to the man next to him, who yelped in dismay, juggling it from hand to hand. McCann buckled his swordbelt. “Come on, Alex, let’s see if Sinclair has found any of your spirits yet.”
(Go on to Page 30)