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Guzzy signaled for my
attention and pointed over the gully’s lip toward the disturbance in the
undergrowth. He grinned, showing his yellowing teeth. “It’s coming for
Still smiling, my cousin scrunched up his nose and donned his rusted steel helmet before lifting his heavy frame to peer over the gully’s lip. “Give it half a moment, Krish.”
I leaned against a rotting oak rising from a bend
in our sheltering gully and stared at the nameless stream trickling
through its bottom. My stomach tightened as the sun’s light faded. The
last few nights of battle gave me reason to fear the dark. The faint
stench reminded me of the putrid odor that always preceded the zombies.
My militia training on livestock corpses wasn’t enough. Walking dead,
with pus-rotted skin teaming with maggots, clubbing and grasping, were
far more frightening.
Guzzy laughed. “Masterful sword work, Krish.”
I kicked away the still wiggling stump and fingers. “Yeah, Guzzy, they’re coming again.” I surveyed the woods, peering into the mixture of oak, hickory and maples. They’d driven us back five miles in the last three days, hardly a fraction of the vast Gray Haunt Forest’s depths. Only one more mile south and they’d drive us out completely. “Didn’t want that thing tripping me up,” I said before returning to the mud-slick gully’s concealment.
I looked back behind our skirmish line. Men with flaming torches and boar spears like mine were moving toward our forward position. Their gray quilted armor, like mine and Guzzy’s, was more effective at warding off the chilly spring nights than enemy attacks. Twenty-three men split up and took positions to either side of me and Guzzy. A lot of new, unsure faces were among them. Unlike the shield slung over Guzzy’s back, the ones they carried were unmarred.
Guzzy said, “Let’s wet and salt our blades while we got the chance.”
I followed him down to the narrow stream. I didn’t
recognize the two men who took up position to our right. “Are Vort and
Darnard still to our left?” I asked.
Guzzy was only two years older, but far more battle hardened than me. This was my first campaign, my third night of combat. I took a deep breath and looked around. Our lines grew thinner. I wondered if the enemy’s would again be stronger, reinforced by some of our fallen.
If Harvid’s corpse had attacked me, I wasn’t sure I’d have cut him down like my cousin did. “Guz, this isn’t like the skirmishes most talk about. Remember Old Lowell’s stories about the three years his father fought, driving back the Great Corpse Incursion? This sounds more like that.” I slid on my helmet and watched the other men preparing their weapons. I’d finally got used to the nose guard. “And Old Lowell is at least seventy winters.”
My cousin gripped my hand as I clutched my spear’s shaft. “You’ve done well sticking and holding them with your boar spear. We’ll get through another night.” Then he nodded and winked. “We’re a team.”
“Guzzy, it takes three to make a true zombie picket team. Harvid fell the first night.”
“And we’ve made it as a pair since then.”
I swallowed hard, summoning the resolve that’d kept me alive and fighting next to my cousin. It wasn’t easy. I was scared through most of the battles, surviving more on luck than skill. I forced a grin across my face. “If last night was a skirmish, Guz—” I started, but stopped when I spotted our new captain approaching, accompanied by a spellcaster.
I recognized the wizard from our first night. His ruddy complexion and red hair emphasized his specialization, fire. The captain looked no more than eighteen summers, same as me.
“Noble’s son,” Guzzy mumbled as he watched the captain approach, wearing clean, unmarred chain mail armor.
I didn’t care whose son he was, as long as he could lead.
“Men, I am Captain Plarchett. Your Lord Hingroar has assigned me to lead the Black Mule Company.” He spoke in a steady, matter-of-fact voice. “Reinforcements will be here by morning. We must strive to hold. If we give ground it will only weaken us while strengthening our enemy.” He sent a hawk-like gaze across the line of our company while his voice gained strength and conviction. “Every one of our fallen they take intact, is one more to march later against us.”
“This speech should be given by our sergeant,” Darnard mumbled to Vort.
“They’ve not bothered to assign another sergeant after Mard fell in our first clash,” snorted Vort. “He was our bugler too.”
Captain Plarchett strode to the spot directly across the gully from Vort and pointed at him. “You, soldier! I have just promoted you to corporal. Not quite sergeant. If you survive the night, I may consider it.”
Vort looked around, then back to our new captain. “Why me?”
Captain Plarchett stared back. “Why me, Captain, sir? Because I just heard you volunteer to recon the enemy position.” He folded his arms. “Go now.”
Vort gulped. “But, Captain,” he said, looking over his shoulder. “They’re marching this way!”
I knew it was wrong to interrupt our captain, but I didn’t think the infraction severe enough to cost Vort his life.
Captain Plarchett put his hands on his hips. “Soldier, I gathered it was your opinion that I lacked knowledge of the duties of soldiers under my command. Corporals are responsible for reconnaissance and fixing the enemy position. Correct, Corporal?”
Out of the closing darkness, a line of two dozen fresh soldiers approached the captain and formed a line to the right of the wizard. I, along with every other man in Black Mule Company, looked about nervously.
The captain relaxed his stance. “I will not order you to your death tonight, Corporal. Remain with the company. Prove your worthiness in battle and you may keep your promotion.” He looked over his shoulder at the new soldiers, a mixture of arms and armor marked them as mercenaries. All looked mean and battle hardened, and each carried five javelins over his shoulder. “Third squad, form with incomplete zombie picket teams and distribute javelins.”
While half the mercenaries climbed down and across the stream before dividing up and joining pairs of soldiers, our captain continued, “We’re to hold this position as long as possible. Reinforcements are on the way. If we must, we will fall back, southwest to the road and to the bridge. The river is up and two companies hold the blockhouses defending the bridge on the far side of the Valduz.”
Captain Plarchett began pacing, and pointed. “We’re defending White Mule’s right flank. Gold Mule is defending the left. Both have received reinforcements.” He looked across the gully into the trees and their darkening depths. “If I should fall, Lesser Wizard Morgan will lead.”
A tall, lanky mercenary with a pock-marked face and wearing weathered leather armor with metal rings sewn into it took position on my right. He assessed Guzzy and me before saying, “I’m a lefty.” He looked at me and pulled a sword longer and heavier than mine. “You’re the sticker. Just hold’em.” Then he said to Guzzy, “You and me will keep them off with our shields and cut’em down.”
I didn’t have to look over to see Guzzy getting red in the face. My cousin was the leader of our picket.
Our new mercenary partner continued, “Watch their eyes—”
Guzzy cut him off. “The eyes’ll tell the souled ones. They can think and direct the mindless ones. We know our business. What about you?”
The mercenary peeked over the rim of the gully. “Name’s Road Toad. No offense, you looked like farm boys.”
I peered into the darkness while Guzzy replied. “We are. But we know how to fight.” Guzzy took a deep breath and let it hiss out between his teeth. “We could use some help. This is more than the Necromancer King’s yearly campaign to interfere with crop planting.”
“The whole Doran Confederacy is rallying to the Lord Council’s call,” said Road Toad. “King Tobias of Keesee has sent Prince Reveron leading troops and wizards.” He stared at us and nodded. “Maybe even serpent cavalry.”
We’d gotten little news in the last five days. “Is the captain right?” I asked Road Toad, figuring he might have come across information on his way here. “That reinforcements are near?”
Road Toad passed me a javelin. “They’re mustering outside of Pine Ridge. They’ll be organized soon, if not already marching.” He handed Guzzy two javelins. “Blessed by an Algaan priest this past sunrise.”
“Better than salt,” Guzzy said, grinning. “Got any Crusader-blessed weapons?”
“Sure,” said Road Toad in jest. “Got a Crusader saint-blessed sword, but curse my luck, I left it back at the Wicked Candle.” Guzzy and Road Toad drew the attention of nearby soldiers with their muffled laughter.
Road Toad caught my ear by mentioning the tavern my father called unsavory. I’d walked past it many times, always lacking enough coin to drink. “You were in Pine Ridge, then,” I said. “When? How’s things there?”
“You’re from there,” assessed Road Toad. “He removed his helmet and rubbed his beard stubble. “No young men. Your tavern there was empty except for old women and even older men.” He slid on his helmet and pointed at the bloated zombie finger I’d hacked from the hand earlier. It wriggled forward, through a patch of weeds and into the flickering torchlight. “They’re organized and moving again. Captain’ll order the advance any minute.”
I took a quick drink from my waterskin and a few bites of stale bread.
Guzzy winked at me. “You’re learning. Never start a fight with a dry throat or empty stomach.”
I reached into my pouch and sprinkled a pinch of salt on the animated finger. It stiffened and remained still.
Road Toad spread grease from a round tin on his sword’s blade before salting it. Then he smeared some of the yellow grease along the shaft of my spear, just below the cross guard. “Good ash shaft,” he said, tucking away his tin. “Grease’ll foil a zombie’s grip.”
Captain Plarchett climbed to our side of the gully. “Black Mule Company, we will advance two hundred yards into the woods, four stride intervals between picket teams. Torch bearers remain ten yards to the rear. Fillers, with me. I’ll direct you to plug any breech.” He looked back at a dozen mercenaries with the wizard preparing to light a large bonfire. “We’ll fall back here where Lesser Wizard Morgan can support us.”
Our captain drew his long sword, its blade caught the flickering torchlight. “Black Mule Company, prepare javelins. We will break up their lines on my order.” He pointed his sword toward the darkness beyond the torchlight’s reach. “Advance!”
Road Toad seemed to leap out of the gully while Guzzy and I clambered out. For me the advance order no longer carried the excitement it had three days ago. Our line advanced cautiously. I observed every fallen log and low hanging limb, occasionally chancing a glance over my shoulder to establish a planned line of retreat. Even with the woods and men around me I felt in the open and exposed.
Road Toad observed my efforts. “Wise move. What’s your name?”
“Krish,” I said, before nodding toward my cousin. “Guzzy.”
“I’m honored to be a part of your picket, Krish. I could’ve drawn much worse.”
Guzzy chuckled. “So could’ve we.”
“Make your line,” ordered the captain. “Prepare first javelin volley.”
I caught the sickening stench before I spotted a wall of movement among the trees, just within the edge of what the filtered moonlight and blazing torches managed to illuminate. “That’s got to be an awful lot of them,” I said, hefting my javelin. “Road Toad, you ever seen that many?”
“Can’t say that I have. Not from this angle.” The mercenary licked his teeth and cocked back to throw one of his javelins. “Least it’ll be hard to miss.”
The entire company hurled a javelin volley on the captain’s order. Most hit. No matter where the blessed weapon’s tip struck, the shambling corpse fell like a dropped sack of wheat.
“We don’t have enough javelins,” I said, having loosed my only one.
“The trees’ll break up their numbers,” said Road Toad. “Crouch down, Krish. After you throw your second javelin, Guzzy, do the same.”
“Why?” asked Guzzy. “We ain’t cowards.”
“Second volley...now!” shouted the captain. Another two dozen zombies dropped.
I knelt, while Road Toad squatted, his long legs bent like a frog’s. He yanked on Guzzy’s trousers. “Down now or this won’t work.”
Guzzy grudgingly complied. “What won’t work?”
Road Toad readied his round shield. In the flickering torchlight I spotted many dents and upon it. Guzzy slipped a forearm through the strap of his shield. I readied my spear.
“See, Sir Guzzy,” said Road Toad, “if we appear less of a target, fewer will come at us.” He hurried his speech to cut off Guzzy’s reply. “Then we can punch through and take them from behind. Only way we have a chance.”
Salt caused zombies pain but they feared nothing. The only way we could stop this size horde was with blessed weapons and we’d expended all of ours. “There’s too many,” I said, estimating that they outnumbered us ten-to-one, even after the javelins.
Captain Plarchett must have read my mind as the zombie horde closed to twenty yards. “Black Mule Company!” he called. “Fall back to the gully.”
We retreated through the trees in formation at a trot. The zombies increased their shambling gait. “Double-time, with me,” shouted the captain, waving his sword and pointing the way.
I followed Road Toad as he weaved through the trees, high stepping over fallen logs and brush. Men grunted as they tripped over maple roots or bumped into low hanging branches. Our formation tightened as we retreated.
There were so many zombies, more than the other nights and fewer of us. Running from them felt like the right thing to do. We’d be ordered to turn and fight soon enough and instinct cried out for me to keep running when that happened.
I wouldn’t flee the battle. I’d stand with Guzzy and face the enemy once again.
“With me, men!” the captain shouted. “Toward the fire.” He pointed with his sword. “Cross the ravine and make our stand.”
The wizard, along with the soldiers who’d stayed behind, had a large fire blazing. Embers swirled around the flames and rose into the hickory branches above. The zombie horde had fallen fifty yards behind, but hadn’t stopped.
End of Chapter 1
© Terry W. Ervin II. All Rights Reserved.Back to: Flank Hawk main page * Home * Chapter 2 * Where to Purchase Flank Hawk
last updated: 12/09