I ran as fast as I could on the way north. The only reason that Ketill and Black could keep up with me was the damage to my leg. I wasn’t pushing myself as hard as I usually would have been able to, and it still didn’t take all that long before my leg was burning with pain.
I had a sinking feeling that I would be too slow to matter, anyway. It didn’t matter how fast I was. It had been too late before I realized what was happening. I was running the numbers in my head as we ran, and it was impossible to avoid that conclusion. Ketill would have left the meeting as soon as it was over, and I didn’t get the impression that he’d been waiting all that long.
But the people who were being sent to fetch the legions wouldn’t wait, either. Not when things were this urgent. They would stop to collect supplies–food, weapons, the various small things you needed on the road. And then they would have left. There was no reason for them to wait longer than they absolutely had to before they got on the road.
No matter how I tried to bend the numbers, I couldn’t avoid the conclusion. They’d already left.
We passed a few people on the way north. Most of them watched us go by curiously. A handful, who knew that when things were bad you followed anyone who looked like they had a plan, fell in behind us. Mostly they couldn’t keep up. Ketill was breathing hard by now, I could hear it, but the old farmer was still keeping pace surprisingly well.
We reached the fields, and I saw the group ahead of us. Half a dozen people and three horses, they were just pulling themselves onto the shore on the opposite side of the Blackwater. I could recognize most of them, if only because they were the people I would have expected to go on a trip like this. Karl and Lily Anders, who went to the city more often than anyone else in Branson’s Ford. Jacek, a Changed shepherd who was strong as a ram and damn near as big; it was always hard to miss him. I thought one of the others was one of Jakob’s friends, though I’d only seen him a handful of times. He came back broken from the war, and these days he was virtually a hermit, spending more time in the forest than in town.
“Oh, no,” I said, pulling up short.
It was too late. It would take time for us to get across the river–the ford was relatively safe, but that was a rather significant qualifier when it came to walking across the Blackwater. And they were already well outside the wards.
“Silf?” Black said, stumbling to a stop next to me. “What’s wrong?”
“They’re smart,” I said. “They plan. Do you think they didn’t plan for this?”
She frowned slightly. “I think you might be overreacting a bit,” she said. “They’re clearly smarter than the average ghoul, but I think you’re giving them a little too much credit.”
“Hope so,” I muttered darkly, staring after them. If not, it was too late to do anything about it now. Even if we were to shout a warning–I couldn’t manage anything remotely that loud, but Black might be able to–it was too late for them to do anything about it. They were well outside the wards, now.
They were in the enemy’s territory.
Moments rolled past, and I thought that maybe Black was right. Maybe I was just being paranoid. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened, not by a long shot. I’d barricaded my door shut at night for my first few months in Branson’s Ford.
Then Karl Anders fell, tumbling off the horse and to the ground with a scream.
At first, I wasn’t sure what had happened. It didn’t look like they were either. They stopped and milled around in the middle of the road, like they weren’t sure what to do. Karl wasn’t standing up.
I saw the second one, a flicker of movement in the air. That one missed, but a few seconds another one followed, and this time Jakob’s friend was the one to cry out in pain.
Arrows. They were shooting arrows at them.
Whoever was shooting, they weren’t a very good shot. Arrows kept falling, and most of them went wide. The first shot that had dropped Karl in a heartbeat looked to have been a lucky fluke; even most of the ones that hit didn’t seem to do that serious of harm.
But they wounded, and the villagers were scared. I couldn’t blame them. Caught by surprise in the open like that, being shot at, it would scare anyone.
Including the horses.
They weren’t cavalry mounts, not by a long shot. Those animals were more accustomed to pulling a plow than carrying anyone. They weren’t trained to hold steady under fire. They could smell blood, and people were screaming around them, and probably at least one had been shot by now, and they panicked.
Whether because the people managed to get them to follow orders or simply because they wanted to go home, the horses bolted back towards the river. The people followed after them, though rather more slowly. Karl had been the only one of the group to be mounted; it looked like they’d been walking the beasts across the river.
It was a foolish thing to do, exactly what the monsters must have expected. I would have been more critical if I hadn’t done equally foolish things under pressure myself. It was impossible to think clearly and work through the logical consequences of your actions when people were screaming and bleeding and dying all around, and a stray arrow might claim your life at any moment.
The horses were around halfway across the river, and the people were in the shallows, when the water exploded into movement. Clawed arms reached up and dragged them down, into the water. It was hard to guess without seeing more of them than that, but from what I could see I was guessing there were only two or three of the monsters in the river.
The people were panicked, already wounded, caught by surprise, and up to their thighs in water. Two or three was enough.
Ghouls had to breathe. Everyone knew that; they were living things like any other, they had to eat and sleep and breathe like anyone else. I wasn’t entirely sure whether that applied to these things–I wasn’t feeling sure of anything when it came to them–but it seemed likely. But they could hold their breath for a time, and with how much diversity there was among ghoul bodies, some inevitably wound up with features that let them move underwater effectively.
One of the horses made it across safely, though it was limping badly with an arrow in one haunch, and it was anyone’s guess whether the thing would live. The rest of the group went down, and didn’t come back up. The Blackwater would carry the blood out to sea.
“Arrows,” Black said, her voice barely more than a whisper. She sounded distant, shocked, almost like she was in shock. “Bones and bloody ashes. Since when do ghouls use bows?”
“Those were Jakob’s arrows,” Ketill said. He didn’t sound a lot better than she did. “He has a special way of fletching them, says it’s good luck.”
“Some of the people with us earlier had bows,” I said. “Some of the ones they killed.”
“That would explain it,” Black said. She did not sound pleased. “I guess you were right. I’m sorry for not listening earlier.”
I shrugged. “Wish I weren’t.”
Ketill snorted. “Ain’t that how it goes,” he says. “Come on. We need to figure out what to do next.” He turned and started walking south, towards the center of town. After a moment, I followed him.
Karl’s body was still lying on the road. The ravens were starting to circle over it.