We kept moving, heading at an angle to the direction we’d been going so far–south, rather than northwest. I wasn’t totally sure of our location; I hadn’t been keeping track of it well, too focused on the immediate to care. But I thought that if we kept going this way we would pass through the forest and come out on the road southwest of Branson’s Ford. There wasn’t much in that direction, but following that road to the east would bring us to the main imperial roads and the major cities of the province.
Not that I had the attention to spare thinking about that. Black and Marcus started pushing us harder once we left Corbin behind. Not that we’d been dallying before, but there had been a certain amount of leeway to it. They would slow the pace when people were breathing hard, pause for a moment every now and then.
Now, we weren’t. The pace never slacked, not even slightly; if someone had literally collapsed from exhaustion, I suspected that Black would simply leave them behind. And it wasn’t an outlandish possibility, either. I knew that I was physically stronger than many of the people with us, and I was exhausted. I was just stumbling along, unsteady on my feet from fatigue. My legs were burning, my back ached, even my arms were sore. Looking around, in the brief moments when I could manage it, I didn’t think that I was alone. More than a few of us were looking unsteady on our feet.
In spite of that, though, not a single person complained or asked for a break. Word had spread of what we’d seen on the other side of that ridge, and everyone was acutely aware of what it meant. Everyone knew, in the back of their minds, that to slow now was death. The feeling of desperate urgency hung over our little army like a cloud, and if any of us were inclined to flag, all it took was one thought of what lay behind us to spur us forward again.
I wasn’t sure how long we’d been moving. It felt like hours, but I knew that was in my head. The constant dread and fatigue were taking their toll, making every moment feel like it was taking ages to pass at the same time that time seemed to be slipping past me far too quickly.
I knew it couldn’t be too long, because the sun was still inching its way down towards the hills. It was low enough now to paint the clouds a brilliant golden orange, and I found myself turning my face away to keep from being blinded. But it was still light out, for at least a little longer.
I was having to focus on the ground right in front of me to keep from stumbling into someone; I didn’t look up, didn’t know where we were going beyond broad directions and the person in front of me. Thus, it came as a surprise when we abruptly ground to a halt and I heard Black say, “I take it that isn’t supposed to be there.”
Startled out of my exhausted trance, I looked up, blinking against the light.
We were in a steep-walled valley, high enough into the hills that there was little in the way of vegetation. What few trees managed to grow looked more like bushes, and even the grasses were struggling to find a foothold on the steep, rocky ground. Ahead of us the hills closed in to a narrow notch before, presumably, opening up again and beginning to drop towards the plains below.
And there was the problem Black had pointed out. That notch was entirely blocked with rubble and debris. The bulk of it appeared to consist of boulders and rocks, but there was a substantial quantity of mud and brush as well.
“That’s fresh,” Ketill said confidently. “And it ain’t the right season for rockslides around here.” He spat on the ground. “Ghouls rigged it somehow, more than likely.”
I stared, dismayed, and I wasn’t the only one. It was easy to see that we would have to climb over that whole pile to proceed. It had to be forty feet up, across steep, rough terrain.
Some of us couldn’t do that. I wasn’t even sure if I could, not after the past few hours, and the past few days before that. And that wasn’t even considering the possibility that the ghouls might have left a special surprise of some kind in there, or even be there themselves.
“Is there any way around?” Marcus asked.
“This is the only trail that leads this way,” Ketill said. “We’d have to double back a long way to go around, and we don’t have time.”
“I know a way,” Jakob interrupted. The old hunter sounded exhausted, and he looked terribly worn, having to lean on a spear to walk. Between his age and his injuries, this must have been an incredibly draining journey. But he was still standing and walking, and there was a grim determination in his voice. “Next valley east, there’s another path.”
“There’s no path there on any map I’ve ever seen,” Ketill said.
Jakob snorted. “I been here,” he said. “There’s a path.” Without waiting for a response, Jakob turned and started walking slowly east, moving through the crowd.
“Do we follow him?” Marcus asked.
Ketill looked at Egill. Egill looked at Ketill. Almost in unison, the two men shrugged. “Jakob’s a crotchety old bastard,” Ketill explained. “But he knows these hills better than anyone. If he says he’s been here, he was here. Coulda been thirty years ago, though, and no way to tell if that path is still there.”
“We don’t have a better idea,” Black said decisively. “Let’s go.”
Jakob was not as pleasant of a guide to follow as Black and Ketill. He set an erratic pace, one moment skipping ahead and the next slowing to a crawl, for no reason that I could identify. He led us up to the hill on our left, then ducked into a crack between two rocks. I’d have sworn it went nowhere, but he slipped behind a thorny raspberry bush and kept going.
For a moment I was reminded of my secret place behind the inn, and a bittersweet smile flitted across my face. But this was a much smaller hollow than that, barely large enough for a person to stand in. Jakob scrambled up the side of the wall, surprisingly adroitly, and then waited impatiently as we worked to get everyone else up the rock behind him. I had no trouble with it, but most of us weren’t as accustomed to climbing, and needed help to get to the top. Black had to bodily lift Egill up; the former mayor’s injured ankle was getting increasingly painful, and he didn’t trust it climbing up the rocks.
Up top, Jakob promptly ducked down the other side, dropping down the side of the hill. He was moving far more smoothly now, his spear held at the ready rather than being used as a cane. It was like looking at a different man entirely; this wasn’t an old, tired, broken man, but a hunter in his element, trained and deadly. He made Black look graceless.
The rest of us weren’t as lucky. We were as much climbing as walking, and while that was a good thing for me most of the group was visibly struggling with it. Our pace had slowed dramatically, and a number of people were slipping and stumbling as we descended.
Jakob stopped halfway down the hill at a game trail that I didn’t even see until we were already on it. I would have thought it was nothing more than a momentary break in the vegetation, but Jakob started along it, and it kept going, winding through the trees.
I followed along gamely, trying my best not to flag. Our pace was still troublingly slow; that last climb had taken something out of people. Our orderly formation from earlier was gone, now, as people simply struggled on however they could. To call it ragged would be kind.
When someone finally fell, it came out of nowhere. It was a man I couldn’t put a name to through the haze of fatigue, who looked to be in his late forties. He stepped wrong, and his ankle twisted out from under him. He stumbled to the side and overbalanced, tumbling forward. When he tried to catch himself his damaged foot couldn’t hold his weight and he tumbled, rolling down the hill. Within seconds he was out of sight, screened by the angle and the trees.
We all stopped and stared for a moment. “Should we go help him?” Egill asked finally, in a small voice.
Black shook her head. “No time,” she said. “We have maybe half an hour before dark. We must keep moving.”
“That’s my cousin,” someone said. “I’m not leaving him.”
“Then you can die with him,” Black said. Her voice was harsh, even brutal. “But you will not drag all of us down with you.”
“Better that than abandoning him,” the same voice said.
Marcus had almost the same tone as Black–harsh, perhaps even cruel, not out of malice but because it was the simple reality of the situation. “He broke his ankle. Even if we could find him he can’t keep this pace, and we can’t afford to wait.”
I waited, idly wondering whether the objector would actually put their actions behind their words, and stay to wait with the man we were abandoning.
No one stepped out to stay behind, and after a few moments we continued down the path, following Jakob.
More time passed. It was measured in footsteps now rather than seconds, and not enough of those. Several times I marched for what felt like hours, only to glance back and see that I wasn’t even out of sight of where I’d started at. My legs were starting to actively burn now, and I could feel my feet blistering. I wanted to ask for a rest, but I didn’t dare. Not only could we not spare the time, but if I sat down now I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stand up and keep walking.
When something changed, I was almost too exhausted to realize it. Almost. But, luckily, not quite. I heard a noise from up ahead, a rustling, and I knew that it wasn’t us.
Almost on reflex, I flung my arm out, catching Black in the midsection.
Instantly, she looked at me. “Something wrong?” she asked, terse and quiet.
I nodded quickly and pointed forward. Black held up her hand, signaling a halt, and glanced to the side. “Ghouls, you think?” she asked.
Marcus grunted. “Sucker’s bet,” he said. The legionnaire grimaced. “Can’t say I ever thought I’d get killed by ghouls. That’s just a humiliating way to go.”
“Can we go around them?” Egill asked. The mayor was in visible pain now, and his ankle had swollen grotesquely.
Black shook her hand. “We don’t have much time before Corbin lights their nest off,” she said. “Can’t afford the delay in finding a way around.”
“Can’t go around,” Ketill said. “And can’t go back.” The old farmer tightened his grip on his scythe, and showed his teeth in an expression that was nothing like a smile. “Guess we have to go through, then.”
“One moment,” Egill said quietly. Then, raising his voice loud enough to be heard by our entire group, he continued. “Ladies and gentlemen, I know the past days have been trying. Some of our number have fallen, and more may fall in the next few minutes. The gods know that this is…not what I expected to be faced with when I became your mayor. I’ve not been perfect, and I know we’ve all had our disagreements. But I could not be more proud of you. You have faced incredible demands in the past days, and you still stand against those that threaten your homes and your families.”
He paused and swallowed, hard enough that I could clearly hear it, before continuing. “But now you are called upon to face another trial. A group of these monsters is waiting for us, and the gods have dictated that we must fight them to pass. I know you are tired; I know you are scared. But we are all that stands between these creatures and our home. We cannot fail. And should I fall, I want you to know that it has been an honor to serve as your mayor for all these years. Thank you.” He bowed his head a moment, then glanced at Black and nodded.
It wasn’t exactly a stirring speech, and the group he was talking to wasn’t exactly a battle-ready force. Unsurprising, then, that the response was solemn nods and murmured prayers rather than cheering. But I thought it did what it was supposed to do. It reminded the villagers of what they were fighting for, and put a little spine back into them with it. Hands tightened on weapons, people stood a little straighter, and murmurs of encouragement spread through the ranks.
We weren’t ready for this. But we’d have to do.
The march forward wasn’t a traditional battle charge. It couldn’t be; we didn’t know where they were, precisely, and our ranks were broken up the trees. It was more of a tense, wary shuffle forward, waiting anxiously for the ghouls to show themselves.
Black rested her hand momentarily on my shoulder, then moved forward to stand in the front lines. It was necessary. She was very probably our strongest and most experienced fighter, and we were not so numerous that we could afford to spare that.
I stayed where I was, clenching a fistful of jagged metal pieces. They were pressing into my skin, hard enough that some of them might well have drawn blood. I couldn’t seem to make myself slacken that grip, though. My breath was coming too fast, my eyes darting all around. I thought for a moment that I smelled smoke, but no. It was just a memory. Just the past, intruding into the present. I shook my head to clear it and shuffled another step forward.
Instants later, a dozen ghouls dropped from the trees and lunged towards us.