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What once had been two living, breathing men now swung in the soft breeze. Though this area along the road did not possess much foliage, the outlaws had chosen one of the larger oak trees with its thick branches to support the display. Stripped of clothing, the dead skin baked under an autumn sun. A trio of crows roosted on the two bodies and pecked at the exposed flesh. It would only be a matter of time before they picked the corpses clean.
Cassidy rode closer to the bodies, and the air turned sour with death and decay. His stomach seized and contracted, but he fought the urge to vomit. When he was within an arm’s length of the once-men, he shooed the black birds away. They had devoured three of the four eyes thus far, but it was not enough to obscure the men’s identities.
“Is it Hadrian?”
Isidora’s voice broke through the stench. Though her horse seemed to have reservations about being so close to the dead, Isidora trotted up alongside Cassidy and studied the deceased men’s faces.
Cassidy shook his head. “No, it was Darius. Didn’t realize he’d been put on this hunt as well.”
Isidora guided her steed over to the other swinging corpse. She reached out with her gloved hand and spun him around.
“Wasn’t this one of their men?”
Cassidy looked up. “Lichy, maybe?”
She continued to twirl him, the rope tightening with each revolution. “No sores, no blackness along the fingertips, and no bleeding gums. He’s clean.”
“You think he wore out his welcome? Though, I suppose finding anyone other than Hadrian is welcome news. Perhaps he’s managed to remain in their good graces.”
Turning back to his corpse, Cassidy rotated Darius one more time. Aside from the battle scars, and a few bruises, the man might have been in good shape, other than being deceased. As he pulled back from the body, he caught sight of the scar. The mark of an eye, no larger than the width of a finger, rested on the inside of Darius’s wrist.
“He has the Brand.”
She backed her horse away and twisted in the saddle to scan the hills around them. “A warning then.”
“Us. Our kind.”
“Lovely thought. And here I figured they didn’t make us in Tolem.”
“Obviously your ability to maintain a low profile could use some work.”
Cassidy ignored the comment and pulled a folded map from his pack. He marked their position with one finger and then traced the long black line, the King’s Road, with his other. Ahead, the line wove between the foothills before turning northward to skirt the mountains. A series of small scratchings along the road indicated the occasional village.
Isidora dropped down from her horse, took a few light steps away from the execution site, and squatted. Cassidy had observed her perform this bit of artistry more times than he could count. She studied the rocks, the dirt, and the very dust, nothing lost before her vision. He had watched her pick up the barest of markings after a rain. It was rumored that she might have been the finest tracker in all of Othis. They were wrong. She was better than they could imagine.
“We’re close now,” she told him. “Tracks no more than a day old and they lead east.”
“Old Welkwood is nearby. Maybe two or three miles ahead along the road.” He marked the sun’s progress in the sky. “We ride hard, we can make it prior to dusk.”
He nudged his steed forward on the road. Isidora remounted and flanked him. Then without a word, she put her heels into her mount and charged off ahead.
* * *
Cassidy looked down over the shell of a village. From their vantage point along a small rise in the ground, it stretched out in front of them. In its prime Welkwood might have been a proper town. The King’s Road cut through its center, lined with what would have been a blacksmith’s forge, a stable, a tavern, or any number of other businesses. Now those same positions were marked by decaying framework or the occasional stone wall. A large statue still stood in the center of town; though weeds and vines threatened to overtake it. He suspected it was one of Lord Rowan’s visages. At the statue, the road split and divided, and from that point, everything radiated outward along a pair of smaller roads. Four larger buildings, more stone than wood, flanked the midpoint.
He glanced at Isidora. “Looks as though those four are in the best condition. One might be an inn or larger tavern. Seems as good a spot as any for them to hole up in. Can you take a look?”
She nodded and closed her eyes. Each breath steadied into a rhythmic pattern. Her body swayed from side to side, threatening to tip over at a moment’s notice. Cassidy made no move to steady her; he did not dare interrupt her gift. Just below her neck, the faint, telltale glow of her Brand began. He looked at her face and saw her eyes rolled up into the back of her head, her eyelids flickering.
A survivor of the Lichy, she was one of the so-called lucky ones. When the madness of the times came, her parents left her on the doorsteps of the church. The priests and sisters found her; the dark heart of the disease clutched her to its breast. This frail little form, barely strong enough to lift her head for the soup they provided to her. She was given a day, no more than two, before she would expire. Yet on the following day, she could talk. On the second day, she stood without any assistance. By the time a week passed, she showed no signs of the plague, save for the small crescent scar on her lower neck.
Not one out of the hundreds who found themselves with the Lichy sores survived. Entire towns ceased to exist over the course of a few weeks. Yet this small girl survived, with only a mark to distinguish her from every other person, a lingering reminder that she was now the stronger breed.
It was only later she learned about the other aspect the disease left. She’d been blessed with the gift of second sight, or perhaps cursed with it. Cassidy never knew what she saw; she only gave him enough information to accomplish whatever task lay directly before them. Still, her foreknowledge saved his skin more times than he could count.
Isidora gasped for air beside him and rolled onto her side. Her body shook like a spastic ragdoll on the grass-patched dirt carpet. He instinctively reached out and placed his hand on her side to keep her from injuring herself while the shaking occurred. Her dark hair, usually shorn close to her head, had begun to grow out, a consequence of the hunt. He pressed a cloth to her forehead and blotted the beads of sweat. A small amount of blood leaked from her mouth.
Her tongue will be sore on the morrow.
He blotted her cheeks as well.
Soon the shaking subsided, though her eyes had not yet reopened. They still danced underneath their lids.
Cassidy never knew if his presence helped to bring her back to the present, but it made him feel better. Not that he would ever voice it to her, but in these moments after she used her gift, the intensity and the scowl, which normally accompanied her face, disappeared. In those moments, she seemed at peace with herself, with the world, and with him.
He pressed his canteen to her lips, and she drank as if it were the last drop in all of Othis.
He whispered, “Did you see how many there were? Do you know if Hadrian is still alive?”
Even with the water, her voice scratched and strained, “You need to go into their lair. You must confront them. It is the only way.”
“Very well, we will hold here until your strength has returned. Then when you are ready-”
“No, you don’t understand. You must do this. Only you… alone. I will have the horses ready for a swift ride back to the capital once it is done.” Her eyes pierced the darkness. “But you are to do this alone.”
* * *
The half-moon’s light illuminated the abandoned trail as Cassidy crept down to the outer structures of Old Welkwood. No potential sentries roamed this portion of the fallen town. At the bottom of the slope, he pressed himself against the broken stone wall and peered around its edge before sprinting along to the next barrier.
Now, in the middle of it, he saw the signs. Once it might have been a thriving burg, yet when the first infected showed up, many chose sanctuary in the larger cities. They hoped the abundance of doctors and apothecaries might spare them. Families left sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, and even children behind. They flooded to the largest churches and prayed to God to spare them, as if a change of scenery would have made any difference.
They were left wanting.
He turned his focus back on the ruined town. Everywhere he saw the marks of the Lichy, and suspected it had run through this place like wildfire. Mounds of ash and bone on the west side of the town marked the last remnants of the doomed, revealing how little time the citizens had to put the dead in the ground. Up close, he could see that the buildings were not simply abandoned or destroyed by the wind and rain, but put to the fire a long time ago. A choice made to head off the plague before it consumed them all.
Glancing back up the hill to their perch, he saw no sign of Isidora. He only hoped that he would have the opportunity to make his way back out to her. He trusted her gift, and the glimpses she saw of things to come.
Cassidy weaved through the buildings’ husks towards the town’s center. Charred and blackened frames surrounded the main street. A small church sat in ruin, the holy spire long since collapsed, spearing the remains of the structure below. Slowly, nature had begun to reclaim her land. Vines climbed and squeezed a few of the standing walls, threatening to pull each down to the earth.
At the very center of the town was the old Rowan statue. One arm outstretched in each direction, a symbol of the vastness of the empire Lord Rowan had amassed all those years ago. This one no longer had either of its limbs. The head was only a partial head, storms or vandals having ripped the missing pieces from it many years earlier. Here again, the vines and weeds worked their way upward, tying themselves into knots around the legs, up the torso, before finishing around his neck like the hangman’s noose. Flames from a small fire cast shadows up and down Rowan as it spat and seized, threatening to expire.
No one tending it.
He crouched behind the last of the stone remains and waited. To his left, he could hear the whinny of their horses. He counted to one hundred before he felt sure no sentries were patrolling.
No one is mad enough to enter this area, even if they didn’t know who was here.
Across from him stood the one building not in complete disrepair, and from his vantage point, he could see a soft light coming from inside the lower level. Cassidy darted across the street and positioned himself just outside the entrance. An ancient sign of a woodpecker drinking from a mug creaked in the wind above his head. Coming from inside the shell of a building, he heard grumbling and shouting. A quick glance showed him six… no, seven men.
He unslung the crossbow from his back and loaded a quarrel. Cassidy exhaled and swung the door open.
“I’m here for Hadrian.”
The entire crew halted their drinking, their card games. One fellow even paused his pissing in mid-stream. They all took a long look at him. One of them rubbed his eyes to make sure the man before them was not a drunken vision, which presented as a dirty, unkempt, and road-weary Cassidy before them. One of the card players pushed himself away from the table and stood, his skin tanned from many years on the road. His patchy beard matched his shaggy dark hair. A toothy grin escaped from his lips and he cocked his head from one side to the other doing his best to analyze the situation before him.
“And what business do you have with Hadrian?”
Cassidy held the loaded crossbow out in front of him so that all could see. “For crimes against the King, I have been authorized to bring him back to Othis to await judgment.”
“Is that so?” The man turned to look at his men and chuckled. They all joined in. “Well, I’m afraid that you will have to wait for your King’s business.”
“Do you have Hadrian or not?”
Another laugh, full of anger, erupted from the man. “I am in possession of Hadrian. Well, me and the boys in this room.”
“I have been charged to bring Hadrian back to Othis to stand trial. I have tracked him to you and yours. Will you turn him over to me?”
The man moved over towards the partially standing bar and snagged a canteen. He downed the contents in one swift drink, only a small amount of foam leaking at the edges. With a hand, he wiped his beard clean.
“Sadly that is not possible. Hadrian is also accused of crimes against me and mine. And I prefer him where he sits.”
He pointed to the back corner where a little man, who looked like he would have been more suited for scribe work, sat. The top of his head bore small nicks and cuts from where they would shave him. The clothes he wore looked four sizes too large for him, hanging from his body like loose skin. At the mention of his name, Hadrian looked up and Cassidy saw the weariness in his eyes. A defeated look, which said that he had no fight left in him. He would not run or attempt escape. Cassidy doubted he would get very far with the shackles around his legs and the manacles on his wrists.
“Perhaps when his flesh is flayed from his bones we shall let you collect. By what right do you have to take him?”
Cassidy reached under his cloak and revealed the metal disk pinned to his armor. Though faded, it remained easy enough to see the falcon wings crossed by a pair of lightning bolts. “By the law of this land-”
One of the card players shouted, “He’s a Walker.”
His tablemate joined in. “Didja not see the gift we made of the last one of yours who came here? Are you so eager to feel the rope burn your neck as well? Alric, it looks to be another hanging!”
“This place, Walker, this place is ours. Your kingdom no longer exists for the likes of us. We are a free people who want for nothing. We drink, we fight, and when we find women, we screw. We live by our own code here. That one,” their leader, Alric, pointed to Hadrian, “that one is a rodent of the worst kind. He possesses no honor, no code, and the limit of his depravity begins and ends when the coin stops flowing. So by what authority do you think to take that which is rightfully ours? For yours, in this room, is severely lacking.”
Cassidy studied the room. He did not miss the various movements of his opponents throughout the exchange, subtle as they attempted to be. Five feet in front of him, the two at the card table had relieved their blades from the sheaths at their feet. The pissing man in the back now stood near the other side of the bar, his hands below the crest. Two of the men he had first thought too drunk to stand held gnarled clubs in their hands, waiting on his right. The third drunk Cassidy had pegged correctly; his head had not risen from the table near the middle of the room.
Alric, for his part, leaned against the bar to Cassidy’s left, his anger replaced by calmness. He had made no move to secure a weapon. That worried Cassidy more than anything else he saw. Even on his best night, with no road weariness, he would not be able to take on the other five. He might fell three before he finally succumbed to their superior numbers.
The math did not add up.
I trust Isidora’s gift, my Lord. I place myself in your hands.
He turned his crossbow and leveled it at the man behind the bar. The bolt whistled through the air before it buried in his throat. Cassidy let the device slip from his grasp, replacing it with his sword. The two card players came at Cassidy and he darted between them, his sword parrying each of their first attacks with ease. Steel clashed with steel, the small fire casting a shadow of the combat onto the far wall.
He observed their techniques, which were rudimentary. They used brute strength and superior numbers more than any real tactics. He slowed his breathing, slowed his mind, and watched their movements.
Anticipate the next blow, move your enemy, make them strike where you are not.
Another blade imbedded in a nearby table, barely missing Cassidy’s sword arm. With his enemy exposed, he severed the bond between sword and man at the wrist. A scream followed, and the man crumpled to the ground, his hand dangling, held on by only bits of sinew and splintered bone.
A bolt slammed into Cassidy’s chest and he stumbled backwards. While the leather took the brunt of the impact, he would have a hell of a bruise on the morrow. Alric stood on the backside of the bar loading the next shot into the crossbow. When he raised it again, Cassidy reached out to the first card player and spun him around to act as a shield. The man’s eyes grew wide in conjunction with the sickening thud as Alric struck true, just late.
Cassidy’s instincts told him to roll to the ground. Sure enough, a gnarled club occupied the air where his head had been. He kicked out and the man’s knee buckled under the impact. Above him the other club-bearing beast of a man stood, his weapon ready to crack Cassidy’s skull.
The whistle of an arrow’s flight broke the silence and hit the man square in the chest. He took a step back, unsure where this new threat came from. Two more arrows embedded themselves in his stomach. He staggered, blood oozing from his lips, before toppling over, his strength no longer able to support his great form.
Cassidy sprung to a crouch and scanned the area before he spotted her at the rear of the room beside Hadrian. Isidora notched another arrow and let it fly at Alric. Again and again, she fired on his position never allowing him to gain an opportunity to respond. Cassidy sprinted to the back of the building, leaving the wounded and dead.
Isidora motioned to Hadrian. “Grab him and let’s be gone from this place. There is an entrance behind me. I’ll be right behind.”
Cassidy nodded and grunted as he lifted the prisoner and tossed him over his shoulder. Outside he found three horses: his, Isidora’s, and a third, stolen from the outlaws. He loaded Hadrian onto the back of the last one before he mounted his own. A moment later, Isidora rushed out of the building and vaulted onto the back of her horse.
The two of them shouted at the horses in unison, “Go!”
* * *
The three rode as hard as they dared under the moonlight for the next hour. It was only when heavy clouds began to obscure the orb’s radiance that they slowed the pace. Cassidy watched for any signs of pursuit.
“How far behind do you think?”
Isidora cocked her head to the side as if doing calculations in her head. “Hard to know. What survivors there are will have to locate their horses. I stole one and scattered the rest to the night.”
She continued, “Most are injured or dead. My guess is that unless they have more we did not see, they won’t have the will to give chase.”
Cassidy nudged Hadrian. “How many are there?”
He coughed. “Water, please.”
Cassidy retrieved his canteen and held it just out of reach from his prisoner. “How many?”
“You don’t want to know the answer to that.”
Cassidy leaned in closer, so that he could look into the man’s eyes, “How many?”
John McGuire is the writer of the sci-fi novel: The Echo Effect.
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