Chapter 8 Excerpt from The Storm of Anticus
From yesterday’s output:
After an interminable score of heartbeats, Beans appeared with Crumb’s arm slung over his shoulders, supporting the man’s weight as they staggered down the short set of stairs from the inn’s door. Crumb had his large, hairy-knuckled hand pressed tightly against his neck as his thick lips moved in what seemed like a never-ending stream of curses. Villios could see the slow ebb of blood seeping through the man’s fingers and was thankful – a pierced artery would be doing much more than just seeping.
At a word from Boulden, Gest broke from the formation’s rear line, handing off his spear and already fishing bandages and jars from the worn leather bag at his hip. The troop’s best cutter, Gest was used to the sight of the company’s blood, and seemed unperturbed as he reached the hobbling pair. Taking Crumb’s hand away from his neck, Gest used his own cloth-covered hand to staunch the slow flow of blood as he took Crumb’s arm over his shoulder. The cutter and Beans quickly moved the big man behind the formation before Gest began working – as used to the blood as the cutter was, protocol dictated that such work take place where the other soldiers didn’t have to see it.
Villios glanced down as Gest began his work. The wound looked roughly circular and the edges were ragged, and the lieutenant’s first suspicion was quickly confirmed by Beans. “Damndest thing, Gest, she bit ‘im, just chomped right down on him while he was carryin’ her. Reap on a teat, she was chewin’ on him like she’s hungry. And he’s a damned -”
Gest cut the soldier off. “Got it, Beans, thanks. Now help your damn squadmates.” Swallowing, the one-time cook’s assistant nodded and shuffled away, looking nearly as pale as Crumb. As Villios watched, Gest took a smear of greenish paste into his fingers, gave Crumb a well-grooved wooden stick to bite down on, and pressed the paste into the ugly wound. The big man grunted around the stick as Gest firmly rubbed the ungent into the split flesh. As the cutter worked the paste deep inside, the soldier finally passed out, and Villios looked away before he himself became sick.
As he looked up, Jefira and Po Endra emerged from the inn, bearing what looked like a young woman of a dozen or so summers between them in uncanny echo of the image of Beans and Gest carrying Crumb. Her head was down towards her chest, held there by Jefira’s gauntleted hand and its brutal grip in the girl’s hair.
Even at the near-score of paces distance, Villios could see the strain of tendons in the girl’s neck as she fought to move despite the iron grip. The soldiers to either side of her required strong grips on the girl’s thin wrists to keep her tugging arms immobile. The girl’s tattered dress was stained in several places, dark brown in most places, but the deep red of fresh blood along the bodice.
A grim-faced Horis followed behind the pair, Beans in tow bearing Crumb’s shield. The group approached the commander, who had to fight his horse’s sudden shying to remain still. The closer the group approached, the worse both Boulden’s and Herndin’s mounts fought to turn and bolt. Cursing, the commander swung his leg off the horse and passed the reins to one of the soldiers – Esric, the best handler they had – who waited for the priest to dismount before leading the horses away, arms straining to keep them from breaking and running. They calmed somewhat as Esric approached Villios, but looked tense and wild-eyed even as Esric sought to calm them with soothing words and touches. The trembling between his knees told the lieutenant that his own mount wasn’t spared their unease.
The soldiers stopped a pace or two in front of Boulden. “Only one we found, Commander,” the grizzled Horis croaked, “an’ she don’t look right.” At his nod, Jefira tugged the girl’s head back roughly.
The girl’s face was round-cheeked and fair-skinned, at one time probably pretty and flush with youthful prettiness. Now, however, the feral look of a rabid animal twisted her look, and the crimson stain of Crumb’s blood surrounded her lips and washed down her chin and neck. Her eyes, shining like the fevered, focused on the stalwart form of the commander with disturbing intensity. The girl’s mouth opened, revealing the stained and blackened teeth and blood-washed tongue. Villios felt a numbing cold stealing through his limbs even before the girl made a sound.
When the moan came, however, Villios’ heart turned to ice. The sound rattled forth from the girl’s thin chest like the sound of Reap’s own tomb opening, echoing off the dead buildings lining the street. To Villios’ horrified ears, it sounded like the expectant uttering of a gluttonous man seated to a feast of his favorite morsels the moment before he sated his hunger mixed with dark undertones that only Villios’ primal nature recognized and shrank from.
The entire company shuddered at the noise, with only Boulden and Herndin standing resolute before it. Jefira, grimacing, let go of the girl’s arm and swung a fist into the girl’s solar plexus in an attempt to drive the air from the lungs and stop the infernal noise. Villios heard the crunch of bone from the girl’s lowest ribs, but the moan was interrupted only briefly. Impossibly, the noise continued, the girl ignoring a blow that should have driven her to her knees.
The commander stared for several heartbeats at the girl in front of him, who was now straining to reach him with her ragged nails as Jefira fought to regain her grip on the outstretched arm. Finally, Boulden turned towards Villios. The strain around his commander’s eyes spoke volumes to the iron control he was fighting to maintain. “Lieutenant,” the commander said evenly, “sound the call. Get Lofin back here.”
Nodding, Villios licked his dry lips and fumbled with the horn at his belt. It took several tries before he was able to emit the twin blast signaling a general recall. The short burst cut through the moan only briefly, which continued to echo all around them. As Lofin’s squad came into view, warily retreating, Villios realized that he was no longer listening to echoes. Instead, he was listening to answers.