The forests and low hills surrounding them were as bucolic as anything the bards described at Cayden's Rest, but Jed's spirits remained low as he followed his new companions over the quickly diminishing trail.
It was his fifth day on the old dirt road. His back ached and his haunches were sore from the jostling. The chain shirt didn't fit right—or, rather, his father was a bit thinner in his prime than Jed was today. He was hungry, and while he was rationing his ale supply, there were but two small barrels left.
And of course, he had undertaken this momentous quest in the only manner of conveyance he had available—the brew-temple's mule cart. His thinking was that the others' horses wouldn't be burdened by the camping gear, including the tents Jed had purchased at the last minute on his way out of Augustana.
Silvestrae and Corogan didn't use the tents. They simply slept on the ground. Corogan was nice about it, saying he preferred the open air. As for Silvestrae, her disdain was silent but palpable. After the first night, Jed left the tents in the cart and slept outside with the others—which was one of the primary reasons, though by no means the only one, why his back was killing him.
The ale he brought, on the other hand, was more welcome, and it was going fast. Corogan seemed to limit himself to a tankard each evening, but Silvestrae seemed to put away the rest of the massive half-orc's share in addition to her own. And yet she held her drink well. Jed had put one of his more experimental brews in the cart along with a few others, and the half-elf immediately noted the lemon verbena hiding behind the hops. She was his kind of customer... at least when it came to ale.
The trail took them northward toward the Arthfell Mountains, long the home of Andoran's more rustic denizens. Those who dwelled in the cities thought of these hillfolk as little better than barbarians, and the few Jed had met at Cayden's Rest certainly fit the bill. Yet they were thoroughly Andoren—fiercely independent and desirous of little more than the right to keep farming their land and hunting the herds in those inhospitable mountains.
So when a representative of the hillfolk traveled all the way to Almas with terrible tales of the dead rising in the Nogortha Necropolis and sweeping through their lands with flame and doom, the Golden Legion had immediately assigned Corogan to investigate.
In Jed's view, at least, Corogan was one of those rare Eagle Knights whose sense of righteousness and justice did not impair his practicality. That was evident from his close friendship with Silvestrae, whose modest magical ability seemed only to augment her skills at stealth and deception. They bickered occasionally—actually, she bickered at the half-orc, who accepted her barbs with grace and humor—but theirs seemed to be a bond of experience and respect.
And loss. They spoke little of Rafe, the cleric who died in Cayden's Rest, and Jed was too circumspect—and perhaps a touch too intimidated—to ask. Jed knew his presence was keeping them from true haste. He could only hope he would be of some use before the end.
"Keep up, Caydenite!" Silvestrae called from up ahead on the trail, riding among the shadows of the afternoon sun.
Grimacing, Jed cupped his hands to his mouth to shout after her. "The road's getting worse! I won't be able to get through soon!"
It was as if Silvestrae's disdain and Corogan's weary patience were tangible magic beams, smacking Jed in the face.
Corogan deftly guided his horse back around toward Jed. "All right. Let's get you on that mule, along with as much of your gear as we can. Except for those tents."
Jed slid off the cart and started unhitching the mule, while Corogan began lifting everything out. The half-orc was strong, as strong as any Jed had seen, but was possessed of such quiet strength and decency that even Jed, who prided himself on his treatment of others, wondered if he had been giving half-orcs in general enough consideration.
Silvestrae, meanwhile, was content to stay on her horse and look utterly impatient with the whole thing—except when the two barrels of ale were unloaded. She was willing enough to sling one onto her horse's back, even when she had to finally climb down from her mount and wrestle it out of the wagon herself.
And that's when a twig snapped off toward the trees. Corogan looked up... then looked down again, shaking his head in quiet disgust. "Damn it all..."
Jed's heart raced as he suddenly found himself and his companions surrounded by at least a dozen haggard, filthy humans with bows and arrows at the ready.
"Whoa! Hey, now!" Jed yelled, raising his hands. "We're just traveling the road here! This is still Andoran, is it not?" The sound of Silvestrae's hand slapping her forehead somehow didn't distract Jed from looking at the men and women surrounding them. "Come now, who's in charge here?"
A rather large, muscular woman dropped her aim for a moment. "I am, and you'd best explain yourselves before we fill you with arrows."
Jed stepped forward, despite Corogan grasping at his shoulder. "Of course, my dear lady. I am Jeddah Cailean, priest of Cayden. These are my companions, the lady Silvestrae and Corogan, Eagle Knight of Andoran. Surely you see his sigil?"
The woman snorted and a few of the others chuckled. "Sigils are cheap," she said. "And we ain't had no food to eat in a week, since we been drove off our land. So you best step away from that wagon before we send you to meet your drunk god."
Jed looked to Silvestrae and Corogan, and both looked ready to unsheathe their blades and have at it. The odds weren't as bad as they seemed, for the ambushers seemed to be mostly unarmored and ill-equipped, and a few were indeed looking quite thin and wan. Thieves, certainly—but why? They had to know their chances were slim against three strong adventurers... well, two, at least.
"Cayden, lend me that silver tongue of yours," Jed whispered in prayer. "And be quick about it before blood is spilled."
He then looked up at the woman with a divinely enhanced smile. "How about this instead: Tell your people to lower their bows, and we'll partake of some of Cayden's ale together. And you can tell me what's driven you and yours to such desperate measures, eh?"
The woman looked wide-eyed at Jed for a long moment, even as Silvestrae began to unsheathe her sword. Then the woman smiled. "All right, then. Ale in hand is better than blood on the ground. Stand down!"
With but a little confusion and murmuring, the bandits lowered their bows and stowed their arrows, and Jed turned to Silvestrae and Corogan with a smile. "Better to lose a barrel of ale and gain some knowledge of the area, eh?"
Corogan responded with a smirk and a clap of Jed's shoulder, while Silvestrae merely frowned as she shoved her blade back in its scabbard. "A waste of good ale on these grubs," she muttered.
The "grubs" in question were indeed local hillfolk, driven from their homes some months past by the sudden surge of undead in their lands. They had left their village with only the clothes on their backs, and what little could be thrown into packs and baskets. Many were left huddling around fires at night, exposed to the elements or trying to find rest in makeshift shelters. Food was scarce, as the tilled fields were far away and the mindless undead had no compunction about killing game and leaving the carcasses to rot, such was their hatred of all life.
"And so we came down to the road to try our hand at briganding," said the woman, whose name was Toska. With some soap and clean clothes, Toska might have simply been seen as fiercely maternal. But here along the road, wearing dirty rags and full of anger, she almost rivaled Corogan in savage mien. "Fact is, though, nobody travels this road much except farmers and tinkers—no real food nor gold. So we try to catch a few fish, maybe some squirrels and rats. And we starve while them skeletons and zombies sit on our lands."
They were seated around a fire, the sun having gone down an hour ago. The first barrel of ale was gone, and the second newly tapped, much to Silvestrae's great annoyance. But the ale—along with Jed's simple spell of charming—had the desired effect. The mood had lightened considerably, and most importantly to Jed, nobody got hurt.
Jed had thought to ask one of the hillfolk to serve as guide, but when he asked Corogan about it during a pause in the drinking, the half-orc merely snorted. "Not necessary. I can follow the land to the necropolis. We bring along one of these people, we'll be slowed down. Can't protect 'em, either. Best to leave them be."
And so Jed went back to the revelry. He took the time to talk with each of the men and women—and a few older children mixed among them—to ensure they were as healthy and hale as could be expected. He used his divine gifts to create a bit of water and food they might share—sadly, not enough to fill all their stomachs, but it was better than nothing.
One after another, the hillfolk drifted off to sleep. There were but two left standing—actually, sitting slouched on a log and singing off-key in slurred voices—when Corogan nudged Jed awake. "We're leaving," he said.
Jed looked to see Silvestrae already on her horse—and Jed's mule already packed and waiting for him. "Now? In the middle of the night?"
Corogan nodded, and Jed could see him work up the patience to explain. "You did well to make friends with them. We have a little more information now, and no one was killed. But we can't have them following us. Or changing their minds about wanting our stuff. Let's go."
Jed staggered to his feet, wincing at the pain in his back and haunches once more, and staggered toward his mule, clumsily mounting it and following the others quietly away from the camp. By daybreak, they had reached the point where the trail began rising toward the stark, gray peaks of the Arthfell Mountains.
As daylight strengthened, the road grew less traveled. By lunch—a meal that Jed missed more than he cared to admit at this point—the trail became more ambitious. By the time the sun disappeared behind the tallest mountain peak, all three companions had to walk their mounts to avoid tumbling off the foot-wide dirt path and into a ravine.
Yet Corogan insisted on going forward, convinced that a clearing was just around a bend. It took three such bends and a half hour of steep climbing in the growing dark, but he was correct. The trail emerged into a small mountain meadow. Buildings rose in the distance, dimly lit by the dwindling rays of sun escaping around the peaks.
"We can shelter there," Jed said. "Perhaps they even have a bed and some ale."
Silvestrae tsked loudly. "There are no lights there, priest. It's probably been abandoned by the hillfolk. And if it is, that means there's undead about."
Jed turned to Corogan, hoping he might have a different take, but the half-orc's weapons were already drawn—a battle-ax in one hand, a short sword in the other. "To the right," he hissed. "Movement."
Silvestrae began whispering words of power and a moment later disappeared from view. Jed drew his rapier, forgetting its power for a moment and starting at the magical blade's light.
A soft moan came from up ahead. Jed turned—and saw several figures shuffling down the path toward them.
"Zombies," Corogan said quietly. "About twenty or so."
Jed could only see six—and that terrified him even more. He turned to Corogan, only to see the half-orc eyeing him expectantly. Right. This is why I'm here.
Stepping forward, Jed took the tankard hanging from his belt and held it aloft in his left hand, a voice in the back of his head critiquing the move. It was the first time he had ever faced undead, let alone tried to focus his god's power to turn them.
He cleared his throat and spoke out into the darkening sky. "In the name of Cayden Cailean, I command you to be gone!"
No power flowed through him as it did when he cast his spells. There was no flash of light, no clap of thunder. There was nothing except a growing chorus of moans, the shuffling of feet through dirt and grass, and the growing stench of rotting flesh.
"Damn it, Cayden," Jed shouted, his voice breaking. "You put me here for this! Get rid of these things!"
The zombies kept coming.
Coming Next Week: Flesh and fire in Chapter Three of Michael J. Martinez's "Crisis of Faith."
Michael J. Martinez is the author of the Daedalus trilogy of Napoleonic space opera novels, the most recent of which, The Venusian Gambit, came out in May. He also has short stories in the forthcoming anthologies Cthulhu Fhtagn! and Unidentified Funny Objects 4. Visit him online at michaeljmartinez.net.
Illustration by Marek Madej.