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    WARNING: Stories on this site may contain mature language and situations, and may be inappropriate for readers under the age of 18.

    A TURN IN THE ROAD By Damir Salkovic
    August 31, 2012  Longer stories   Tags:   

    1

    Fouchet stared at the dusty road ahead, saw the combined shadow of him and his horse lengthen before them and dug his heels into the scrawny sides of the weary animal. The horse let out a high, thin whinny; it was nearing the end of its strength, the sides of its neck streaked with froth. Without proper rest it would not last more than a day, two if fortune smiled on its rider. But Fouchet had no time to waste; he spurred the mount onward in desperate hope of finding shelter for the night.

    Lush green meadows and forests stretched unbroken for miles. It was a lovely, warm spring day, the fragrant breeze of the grass and flowers thick in the air; yet the unnatural silence cast an ominous hue over the idyllic scenery. No birds sang in the canopies, nothing rustled in the verdant shrubs. In a few hours the treacherous sun that shone so warmly now would sink into the tree-tops and darkness would descend, thick and impenetrable. He could not see in the darkness. They could. 
    With each stride of the horse’s weary hooves the shadow grew longer, the woods and fields took on the eerie purple glow of twilight on a sunny day. The rider felt his limbs turn to lead with fear, the coppery taste of panic in his mouth. His eyes scanned the line of trees nearest to the road: beyond the first trunks darkness already reigned uncontested. He fancied he saw movement in the shadows, but the fading light was playing tricks on his eyes, his nerves, worn thin by the lack of sleep and incessant apprehension, fashioned grasping arms out of boughs and snarling, lumbering forms from scrubs swaying in the wind.

    Then, a miracle: a broken-down wooden shed behind a turn in the road, a handful of planks and beams hastily knocked together to house tools or cattle feed in the winter. One side had collapsed and the empty interior was too small to provide shelter for Fouchet or the horse, but it was a structure made by human hands. The horse seemed to sense the wild hope that flared in its rider’s breast; its legs found new strength and it broke into a gallop along the winding road.

    The village lay in a wide clearing around the bend, a dozen or so houses scattered around a simple stone church. Fouchet reined in the horse and drew his cavalry saber, his eyes struggling to penetrate the encroaching darkness. The windows on the houses were broken, the wooden lids and doors torn off their hinges. Charred foundations indicated the location of several tenements that had burned down. The woods on either side of the settlement had already sunk into shadow. The horse slumped into a weary trot, its head hung low. Fouchet took this as a good omen: the animal usually sensed them several vital moments ahead of him, its sharpened senses picking up the stench and driving it into a frenzy of fear. Not a soul stirred in the empty village, not a sound came from the vacant pens and fenced enclosures. Perhaps it was abandoned, the things having turned away after tearing the life out of anything that breathed in the houses and the surrounding wilderness. But Fouchet was low on hope. His right hand cramped with pain: the knuckles gripping the hilt of the heavy sword had turned white. He became aware of a low voice muttering incoherent phrases in French. It seemed to emanate from his own lips.

    The doors and windows of the church on his right were boarded shut; it was here that the peasants sought refuge from the horror that had descended upon their village, burning incense and offering prayers that went unheeded and unheard. Hunger and fear must have driven most of them out into a death too terrible for words, the few who remained finally succumbing to a slow death of starvation and cold; the previous winter had been bitter. Fouchet led the horse around the tall, angular stone walls. The reek of death was strong in the air, the advent of warm weather accelerating the decomposition halted by the cold. He inspected the boarded-off doors: dried blood and pieces of decaying flesh, the strong timber chipped in places. They had caught the scent of putrescence, hungered after it, tried to get in. They would be back.

    Staying in the village was not safe. If the things came back they would smell him, smell the animal, no matter how well they hid. But the horseman had run out of options: night was descending fast, and he knew better than to travel once the sun had set. Further down the road, atop a low slope that led out of the village, he beheld a broad structure with a shingle-covered gambrel roof: a barn built into an earthen bank in the style of the region, as squat and sturdy as a fortress. He clicked his tongue and spurred the tired animal toward the building. The horse seemed to be frozen on the spot; its sleek head was raised, the legs refused to move. Then it let out a terrified cry, its nostrils and blood-shot eyes wide with fear.

    They emerged from a ravaged stone house with a caved-in wooden roof, moving toward the horse and rider with the jerky, lumbering gait. Fouchet counted three – a woman, a man and something rotted and torn beyond recognition – dressed in bloodied rags that once could have been the colorful peasant dress common in these parts. The woman’s neck was broken; her head hung at an impossible angle. Fouchet could hear their low grunts, the gnashing of the remnants of their teeth.

    A rider on a horse could outpace the slow, ungainly figures with little effort and reach the barn with plenty of time to gain access inside. But Fouchet’s horse could not be persuaded to cross the path of the walking corpses; it whinnied and snorted, attempting to turn around and head back down the road. Fouchet cursed and stabbed his spurs into the sides of the frightened animal. The horse bucked, almost throwing him off.

    Step by shambling step, the things drew nearer until the hussar could make out the eyes glowing a dull yellow in the ravaged faces, the gaping wounds rife with the gray and purple of decay. The animal’s training finally overcame its instincts: the horse leapt forward, breaking into a gallop. The nearest creature reached its clawed hands toward them. Fouchet swung the cavalry saber in a practiced arc. The blade cleaved the rotting skull in two, the lower jaw twitching in blind, insatiable hunger; the headless body continued its trajectory for a moment or two, then collapsed into the dust. Its two companions fell upon it before it hit the ground, talons rending and teeth tearing and crunching, the horse and rider momentarily forgotten.

    Fouchet reined the horse in as they reached the barn, leading it around the foundation of the structure with his sword drawn. The stone basement dug into the bank was open, the doors and windows leading into what used to be the stables and feedlot had been removed. Yet the wooden structure above it was intact, the windows too high for the things to reach. The heavy double door leading to the threshing floor and hayloft above the forebay bore no traces of the things’ fists. But it was barred from the inside: it resisted all his efforts to open it. Sweat, tinged with the coppery smell of terror, soaked his hussar’s dolman. He had little time to spare: he had seen the creatures attack their fallen companions out of sheer predatory instinct, but they had no taste for the flesh of the dead. Through the thickening darkness he could make out the other two creatures discard the lifeless carcass and raise their bloodied heads in the air, picking up the succulent scent of the living.

    In desperation Fouchet put his shoulder against the doors and pushed with all his strength. Heavy, but not secured: this time the door gave in an inch or two. He heaved again and felt a dull pain in his shoulder and side. With a low scraping sound one of the barn doors opened half-way; the cavernous interior was as dark as the night itself. The air was stale and dry, motes of dust floating in the pillars of fading daylight that came through the hayloft windows. Fouchet led the horse inside and turned toward the door.

    A heavy beam, used to bar the doors from the inside, lay discarded in rectangle of light at his feet. It had been moved recently and another set of footprints spread under those left by the hussar’s boots. He reached for the pistols in his belt, heard the flintlock on the rifle turn from half to full-cock. He was exposed in the light, an ideal target for the invisible rifleman. He raised his hands.

    “Close the door,” a gruff voice said in German.

    2

    The crossbeam was heavy, the cleats rusted; it took Fouchet several attempts to bar the door. His back and arms ached from the effort. By now his eyes had adapted to the near-complete darkness. He could make out the silhouettes of the support beams, the narrow wooden ladder leading up to the loft, the outlines of what could have been a cart in the far right corner of his vision. Behind him he could hear the agitated steps and snorts of the horse, the faint rustle as the man with the rifle shifted his feet.

    “Turn around with your hands raised.”

    Fouchet obliged. From the depths of the hayloft, a vague shadow, blacker than the surrounding darkness, moved to the accompaniment of creaking floorboards. The horse, tied to a beam between the shadow and the door, let out a low whinny of alarm.

    “There is a lamp on the wall. To the right of the door.” The voice now spoke French in the careful, measured tones of one lacking confidence in his grasp of the language. “Light it. The…” hesitation as the voice struggled with the word, “the tinderbox is on the floor. Under the lamp.”

    For a moment the hussar contemplated a feint, reaching for the tinderbox and diving for the cover of the wooden silage trough he had seen upon entering the barn. The man with the rifle had but a single shot. The muzzle-flash would reveal his location. Fouchet still had a brace of pistols in the belt of his dolman: he would have two chances to fire back.

    But would the other miss? Even a wound would prove to be fatal in the absence of medicine and treatment. Besides, the unseen man was the only living, breathing soul he had encountered in months. Could he kill the first herald of hope that perhaps not all was lost, that men still inhabited the infinite darkness that the world had become?

    His fingers found the tinderbox and struck the metal wheel. The small tongue of flame from the tinder licked the wick of the candle, the smell of burning oil filling his nostrils as the contours of the barn swam out of the darkness and into a diffuse orange light. Before him stretched the hard-packed dirt of the threshing floor, bales of hay lay neatly stacked in its far corner. A common area consisting of a stone hearth and long bench and table stood on the other side of the barn floor. To his right stood a simple wooden cart, tools hanging in neat arrangement on the adjacent wall.

    The long barrel of the rifle protruded from a makeshift cover of barrels and crates directly opposite from the barn door. The mid-point of the barrel rested on a v-shaped support knocked together from wooden planks, allowing the marksman to brace the weapon and steady his aim. The muzzle stared straight at Fouchet’s heart. Had he attempted the ruse a moment ago, he would have been dead before his body touched the dirt floor of the barn.

    In the shadows behind the cover he could make out the speaker, a tall, broad-shouldered figure in the familiar short blue jacket with double button-rows worn by Prussian infantry. The hussar’s heart sank. This was no peasant cowering in a barn, terrified beyond his wits, but a trained enemy marksman, one who would show no mercy to the invaders.

    “Remove the pistols from your belt and place them on the floor.”

    “No,” Fouchet said. He took a step forward anticipating the flash, the report of the shot, the impact of the bullet hitting his flesh. When there were none, he took another. Every creak of the aged floorboards beneath his riding boots sent a shiver of morbid anticipation up his spine. “I have to tend to my horse. There is a well in the yard and you don’t appear to be lacking in hay. Surely a gentlemen’s agreement is not out of the question?”

    “You are a prisoner of the Royal Prussian Army!” The voice was shrill with anger. “Stand back and relinquish your weapons, or you will be killed!”

    “The Royal Prussian Army is no more,” said Fouchet. Slowly he removed the saddle and reached for the currying brush. The horse made an eager noise. “For that matter, neither is Prussia. Or France. TheGrande Armee has disbanded in a rather dramatic fashion, and the night life in Paris is not quite what it used to be.” Despite the laconic tone, he felt his throat constrict in anxiety. Yet the muzzle remained silent. Fouchet’s saber and carbine hung off the side of the saddle, and now he had the horse between him and the shooter. “In light of what I saw west of here, between Auerstädt and Ekartsberg, I’m prepared to put all hostilities aside.”

    Heavy footsteps approached from the shadows. The Prussian approached, his weapon trained on the enemy. He was tall, nearly a full head taller than the hussar. The golden accents on the cuffs and collar of his infantry jacket indicated an officer. He had barely left boyhood a year or two ago, but already carried the hardened look of a veteran in his eyes. At close-range, the muzzle of the rifle made Fouchet think of the entrance to a long, impossibly dark tunnel.

    A flicker of anguish crossed the youth’s broad, ruddy face. Then his muscles relaxed, the tip of the rifle pointed at the floor. It took Fouchet a tremendous amount of effort not to sigh with relief. The two men faced each other in silence.

    “Come,” Fouchet said, grabbing his carbine. “The creatures roam the village. I killed one on the way here. We can take the other two out from upstairs.” He indicated a ladder leading to the upper hayloft. Combined with the elevation of the ground, the upper floor would offer an excellent view of the village below. The barn was a veritable fortress, defendable from all sides. “Remember – aim at the head. It’s the only way.”

    3

    Fouchet uncorked the bottle with his teeth and allowed the wine to gurgle down his throat. He leaned back against the bale of hay, smacking his lips in satisfaction.

    “One thing I’ve learned since the end of the war,” he said. “No matter where you find yourself, raid the church first. The Crows always have a well-stocked cellar. No shortage of food either.”

    The other man – who had introduced himself as Ludwig – said nothing. He sat on a milking stool, his oversized hands resting on his knees, sunken eyes staring without direction. The rifle rested against a wooden beam at his side.

    The Prussian’s silence had an unsettling effect on Fouchet, but the cheese and ham found in the churchman’s cellar occupied his attention enough to divert him from dark thoughts. He ate and drank without restraint, marveling at the texture and flavor of the food. It had been many a long month since his last proper meal.

    “How long have you been here?”

    The vacant stare did not waver. “Months. All through the winter. My regiment travelled south from Leipzig. We were to join the main force of the Royal Prussian Army at Auerstädt, under the command of the Duke of Brunswick.”

    “I was at Auerstädt.” Fouchet nodded. Then, to evade the topic: “Your command of French is remarkable. You’re clearly no peasant’s son.”

    “My father is a merchant in a small town east of Leipzig. My brothers and I had a tutor from a young age.” The youth’s eyes narrowed. “Who took victory at Auerstädt?”

    “We did,” said the hussar. “For whatever that was worth,” he hastened to add, seeing the frenzied expression that crossed the young man’s face. The muscles beneath the infantryman’s jacket coiled. He was dangerous, the boy: he had spent the long winter months walled up in the barn, his hatred toward the invaders – his sole tie to the life to which he’d once belonged – given free rein to fester and swell as horrors roamed the world around him, the darkness within him growing with each bleak, sunless day. It had been busy, this darkness, working at the tender strings of his mind, unraveling them one by one. He had become unhinged by the hatred and fear – but was there anyone left in the world who was completely sane? Would the first human he’d encountered in weeks turn out to be a madman, cut his throat as he slept?

    The rifleman’s face was suddenly pale with fury; his jaw muscles stood out in his sunken cheeks, grinding his teeth together. His fists clenched and unclenched, the knuckles white with effort.

    “Your Bonaparte,” he said, nearly choking with fury, “is a tyrant and a blackguard!”

    Fouchet discarded the empty wine bottle with a shrug. An excellent vintage, he concluded, not without remorse at its disappearance. “What does it matter now? Odds are they’re both dead, Bonaparte and your King alike. Their throats have been ripped out, their intestines devoured.” He smiled mirthlessly. “Perhaps they have joined the creatures, rambling about in tatters, knowing nothing but blind hunger for human flesh.” The peal of laughter, high-pitched and terrible, caught him by surprise. The youth’s eyes widened in confusion. Fouchet choked back another eruption; there was something decidedly unwholesome about the pitch of his laugh, a dark undertone that beckoned him to drown in it, to laugh and laugh until he had laughed himself to pieces and the world around him dissolved into nothing. “Everyone you and I knew is dead. The world is dead – a stage across which corpses shamble and prance and the living cower in dark corners, awaiting their turn.”

    Terror and despair crushed the youth’s belligerence. “Someone… someone must be alive.” He buried his face in his hands. “You’re alive. I’m alive. Others have survived.”

    “It doesn’t bear thinking about.” Fouchet closed his eyes, hastened to open them again. Indescribable images swam in the darkness behind his eyelids. He could not go to sleep, had been unable for days. Occasionally weariness would overpower him and he would drift into a fitful slumber, but the rest of his hours were spent in the familiar haze through which insomniacs perceived the world.

    “I first saw them in a village,” came the Prussian’s voice. “Three days’ march north from here. My company marched in high spirits. We were well fed, our boots and weapons polished. We had received orders to separate from the regiment secure a transport of provisions to the troops. The supply lines had mysteriously run dry. Only at the outskirts, as we came across the first houses, did we notice something was amiss. No cows or sheep in the pastures. No birds in the trees. Fields and forests had gone quiet.

    “The houses were boarded shut. Not a soul walked the streets. People shouted at us from behind the boarded doors and windows, telling us to leave. Our captain was angry, we were unsettled: there was something wrong with the scene. He ordered the villagers to open the houses. No one obeyed. We gathered around a well in the village square. For the first time I saw the captain confused and I was frightened. It was cold and wet out there, but we waited.” Beads of sweat appeared across the young Prussian’s forehead, despite the evening chill that pervaded the damp barn. “It was late afternoon when the things came. Six or seven of them, walking straight at us. We didn’t know, of course. From a distance they looked like ordinary peasants. They weren’t…”

    “Decayed,” said Fouchet. The youth nodded.

    “It was only the way they walked – that terrible, jerking gait. Will that I ever forget! Two soldiers approached them. We all watched. Then – God help me! – the things were at the soldiers’ throats, biting and tearing. Their screams will haunt me to the day I die, the stench of fresh blood and carrion – for by now the things had drawn nearer – still lingers in my nostrils.

    “Shock and terror froze us for a moment. Then we scrambled to our rifles and began to fire at the apparitions. The bullets went through them, tearing chunks of rotting flesh from their bones, but they did not stop.”

    “Until shot in the head.”

    “Yes.” Ludwig wiped the cold sweat from his brow. His hands trembled visibly. “After they were… after they had stopped moving, we stood there, dazed and petrified. Some of us fell to their knees and wept. Others prayed. The captain was a stout, unshakable fellow. He ordered the corpses of our comrades to be buried. We laid them in the center of the square, covered them with blankets while the men dug the graves. Then the blankets began to stir…

    “The nearest soldiers saw them and cried out. Our dead comrades rose to their feet. Their faces… those eyes… the men lost their senses. Screams and rifle-shots everywhere. Madness ensued – who could stare in the face of such unnamable horror and retain his senses? The way these things – who had once been our friends – slavered and gibbered and moved… it was too much to bear.

    “Our minds snapped. The captain was shouting at the peasants to open their houses at once. We needed shelter, night was drawing near – and what horrors did the night hold if Hell was already here, in broad daylight? Some of us begged, some howled. Then a shot was fired at one of the houses. There was a weak response from the boarded-up windows, mostly pistols and ancient blunderbusses. The captain…”

    Fouchet waited. The horror and anguish writ large across the speaker’s face told the rest of the story. “The captain ordered us to set fire to the houses. The inhabitants screamed and pleaded – they were simple peasant-folk, the walking dead had terrified them even more than they had us, hardened soldiers. I was among those who set the tenements ablaze. The roaring blaze, the hellish screams of the women and children trapped inside – the very innocents we had taken up arms to protect against the invading French!

    “It was the gate of Hell that yawned before me, an infernal blaze that seemed to stretch across the sky, the screams of forsaken souls ringing in my ears. I fled the village at dawn. The rest of the company took shelter in the houses. How long they survived I cannot know; the forests already crawled thick with the creatures, drawn like flies to the scent of spilled blood. I walked in the bitter cold and rain, taking shelter and meager sustenance in the abandoned villages along the way.

    “The winter drove me here, the barn offered protection from the snow. I survived on the provisions I took from the houses and a hog I found in the stable under the barn. I’m all but out of powder and shot. Soon the food will run out. I’ll have to head out for the cities – Naumburg, perhaps Leipzig.”

    “Whatever you do, stay away from the cities,” said Fouchet. He recalled the streets teeming with the walking dead, the gutters and canals overflowing with liquid putrescence, the walls of the houses spattered with dried blood and human remains. At least in the countryside there were open spaces to allow one to escape, forests to hide in.

    He took in a deep breath. “I was at Auerstädt with the Third, under the command of Davout, the Iron Marshal. We had received orders to march on Jena and join the main force, led by Ney and Lannes. It was a dreadful morning, an unctuous fog trailing across the ground, damp setting into the very marrow of your bones. Out of the fog came the Prussians. Later we would learn this was no avant-garde, but the main body of the Prussian army. They outnumbered us two to one. The infantry fell behind the houses of a nearby village, fending off enemy assaults as our artillery took up its position.

    “Sometime around noon the Prussian lines began to waver. While our infantrymen exchanged fire, we swept around their northern flank and launched an attack to cut them off. A bullet grazed my head during the charge.” Fouchet removed his plumed cap and traced his finger over a badly healed scar that ran across his left temple and disappeared into his dark hair. “I fell off the horse, struck my head on something hard and lost consciousness.

    “When I opened my eyes the sun was already setting. At first I could not remember where I was. My head throbbed and there was caked blood stuck to my cheek, all over the collar of my tunic. The world spun in a slow circle and eerie colors floated before my eyes. I sat up until I regained my senses. When the scene around me came back into focus, I wished to God it hadn’t.

    “I have seen many a battlefield after the cannons and muskets have gone quiet. War is no parade of elegant uniforms and gleaming sabers and bayonets to the merry beat of the marching drum. But this… Among the scattered bodies walked legions of ghouls, falling upon the wounded and dying in a bestial frenzy of claws and teeth. Most wore peasant garb, but I saw the brown coats of our chasseurs and the deep blue of the infantry among them. Prussian colors too. Later I would learn how this could come to be – how a bite from one of the things can affect a living man or woman, no matter how grievously wounded, turn them into a walking cadaver. But at the sight of what I took to be soldiers, feeding on the flesh of the fallen like ravening beasts, my brain screamed inside my skull, threatening to escape into madness.

    “There was a strangled, inhuman noise to my right. Among the dead bodies surrounding me one was moving: it was one of our fantassins, infantrymen, crawling toward me on his hands and elbows. At first I though him wounded and in need of help. Then I saw he had been cut in two by canister-shot, his lower body lay several yards behind him. He crawled toward me, this man who was not, could not be alive, his hands clawing through the mud, baring his teeth – what was left of them, for a stray ball had taken his lower jaw clean off his face – and trailing his insides behind him. He must have been bitten by one of things in his very last moments, for a bite-wound gleamed fresh crimson from his shoulder.

    “Through the cold mud and the piles of corpses this aberration of Nature’s laws dragged itself in my direction with relentless alacrity. Slow as its motions were, it was almost upon me. My mind was paralyzed, my limbs leaden and numb. I would have given up – death would’ve been a welcome respite from this vista painted by the Devil himself – but the thought of being dead, yet not dead, of becoming one of the creatures spurred me to action. I cast a frantic look around and saw the gleam of metal behind me: a bayonet on a rifle clutched in the grip of a dead soldier.

    “I groped for it and managed to wrest it from the cold, stiff fingers just as the crawling monstrosity approached. It raised itself on one arm to allow the other one to secure a better purchase on my trouser-leg. Its exposed innards glistened purple and grey in the dusk. I raised the rifle and drove the bayonet-point through one of its jaundiced, blood-streaked eyes with all my might. I stabbed it over a dozen times, running the blade through the softened flesh over and over until it moved no more.

    “By now the battlefield was swarming with the things, the freshly bitten rising to swell their ranks. I scrambled to my feet and salvaged some weapons and powder from the dead around me. Then I took off at a run, aiming for a copse of trees in the distance. Anything still breathing, but too weak or wounded to escape fell victim to the creatures. I ran and I ran and the ghouls tried to seize me, but they were too slow. Soon I’d left the battlefield behind me.”

    “Were you the only survivor?”

    “No. I saw others. Men running for the shelter of the village, some riding on horseback. My legs ached and my lungs burned for air, but I made it to the line of trees. At first I cursed myself for not following the others to the village. Here I was hungry and it was bitterly cold. But to stay in the village would have invited death, with its streets teeming with the creatures. A wave of blackness overcame me as night descended. I could not explain what I had seen, it defied reason, defied God. Twice I took a pistol out of my belt and contemplated shooting myself: the touch of metal against one temple, a pull on the trigger. But twice I put it back. It’s hard to think about death when one is alive, especially death at your own hand.

    “In the dawn hours I woke, wet and chilled to the bone. My entire body ached and the pain in my head was unbearable. I walked around in a vain search for something to eat, but mostly to warm myself up a little. Then I saw the horse.” Fouchet pointed to the animal reposing in a corner of the barn. “He was wondering the woods like me, frightened out of his wits. He was one of ours, bore a cavalry saddle on his back. I cried with joy, not so much for finding a horse as for finding a companion, another living, breathing being.”

    “What happened then?”

    The hussar’s face darkened. “We rode westward, for our positions in Jena. I reasoned our troops would still be there, that I could warn them of the impending danger. We could not proceed deeper into Prussia, that much was certain. We had to turn back. With time, our men of medicine and science would discover the cause of this terrible mystery. Yet the insufferable suspicion that there was nothing to return to cast a shadow across my thoughts. I pushed it aside, but with each mile the shadow grew and grew. For I had forgotten that there had been another clash of armies at Jena, another battlefield littered with dead and wounded men.

    “The sun was rising behind my back when I first saw them. It was as if the wavering aether of bleak autumn dawn that is neither darkness nor light had assumed a solid shape. Over the muddy fields they marched in that slow, lurching gait, wisps of fog trailing beneath their feet: a great army, tens of thousands in number. I saw Frenchmen and Prussians, fantassins and cuirassiers, men and women, soldiers and children, shoulder by shoulder. There were no generals and officers, conscripts and civilians – it was all the same.” Once more the unnatural laughter struggled to escape Fouchet’s chest and once more he pushed it back. “They had no need for orders and shouts, the walking dead, no cymbal or marching drum. Only hunger – hunger that knows no bounds, that cannot be sated. Devoid of reason, unbound from law and logic, their only instinct to devour and destroy until the last spark of life ceased to glow and nothing but a bleak, barren waste remained.

    “I turned the horse around and fled back in the direction I’d come from. Like you, I scraped together provisions from abandoned villages, cities turned into great stone tombs through which the dead aimlessly wander. I spent the winter on the outskirts of Naumburg, which even the ghouls seemed to have abandoned. The cold makes it harder for them to pick up the scent of the living. Still we barely survived, the horse and I. I could not light a fire to keep us warm, and food was nearly impossible to scavenge. I trapped rats from the sewer, ate rotted scraps from the pantries of abandoned houses. Raw, spoiled grain I found in a basement – that’s what kept us alive.

    “When the spring thaw came I knew it was time to leave. This is the only way to survive. If you never stay in one place, you can never be trapped.” The hussar paused for a moment. “For they’ll always find you, always sniff you out. In the countryside there are fields, there is room to outmaneuver them.” He uttered a mirthless, bark-like laugh. “Like in the army, yes? Outmaneuver the enemy, delay.”

    The Prussian shook his head. “To what purpose? There is no hope, nowhere to go. Sooner or later we will walk among them.” The frenzy burning in his eyes was the sole outlet for the turmoil in his soul; his face was that of a granite statue. “It is the end of days – the dead have risen, the living are called forth for judgment. Through our wickedness we have angered God, and his wrath is terrible.”

    “This is no work of God,” said Fouchet. “In the darkest hours I have thought the same. Yet this is no rain of fire, the earth has not cracked open to thrust the dead up from their graves. No, it is a malady of the blood, one that spreads through the creatures’ bite. And it does not affect those already dead – some life must remain in the bitten for the pestilence to take hold.” He stretched his legs before him. “I’ve become quite proficient at shedding blood, but I cannot read its mysteries. I’ll leave them to the men of medicine to uncover – if there are any of them still living. What I know is that as long as I’m not bitten I’ll not become one of them, and as long as I can flee I can stave off being bitten. I’ll keep running as long as I can.”

    “Do you think yourself safe from the punishment of the Lord?” A disdainful sneer twisted the lips of the youth. “Where can you hide where He will not see you? And if this is a pestilence, as you say, has He not sent it? Is this not the Hell to which the wicked are destined – demons loosed upon the earth, devouring the flesh of the cursed? You blaspheme, you refuse to see the truth, as if this will save you. Who can escape His anger?”

    “We can save ourselves. Whatever it is, this pestilence, it does not arrest the natural processes in dead flesh. Their limbs are stiff like those of a cadaver, their sinews rotted; they continue to rot as they walk and I have seen them collapse into a putrid pile once the decay had eaten into the structures of their body to where they could no longer support their weight. It may take months or it may take years, but eventually the worm will claim them all. We can wait them out – if we can stay alive.”

    “It is impossible. We will all die – if not by tooth and claw, then by starvation and cold. There is nowhere for the wicked to go.”

    “Perhaps,” Fouchet said. His gaze disappeared into the shadows of the rafters above him. “Perhaps it is man’s destiny to die. But perhaps there will be survivors, and when it’s over man will look upon a new world. One in which he won’t slay his fellow man at the whim of kings and tyrants.”

    Ludwig did not reply. He stared into the flickering light of the lamp, his lips moving soundlessly, his hands clasped before him. Fouchet piled more fragrant hay under his head and back and drew a blanket across himself. Tomorrow he would try to talk some sense into this overgrown, prematurely hardened boy. Tomorrow… his mind welcomed the velvety darkness spreading across it like a veil, as he drifted off into a heavy, dreamless slumber.

    4

    Somehow, despite all his watchfulness, they had surrounded him. Enveloped in thick darkness he could not see them, but he sensed their presence, the shambling feet and slavering jaws, the dead that had defied the stillness of the grave; no matter which way he turned death waited for him, hiding behind the rotted mockery of human visage, talons reaching out to sink into his body. His breath came out in hot, short gasps as he stumbled in the blackness that pressed around him with a physical presence.

    From ahead came the frightened squeal of the horse. He tried to pick his way toward the animal, could not see it in the darkness. There was rustling all around him as the squeal gave way to screams of panic.

    He gave a start and opened his eyes. Above him loomed the rafters of the barn. Sunlight filtered through the high windows. It had been a dream – but why did he still hear the screams of the horse?

    Fouchet sat up too quickly and a shot of pain ran through his numbed back. In the gloom of the barn he could see the horse pacing the far corner in panic, the Prussian clutching his rifle, wide-eyed with terror. He opened his mouth to ask what was happening.

    Then he knew.

    Grabbing his carbine and charges, the hussar sprang up the wooden ladder to the hayloft. He peered through a cobwebbed window, the bright morning light painful to his eyes.

    They had approached the village during the night and now swarmed around the bend in the road down which he had ridden the day before, poured through the woods surrounding it. Hundreds, thousands of the things: he could see soldiers among them, and peasants, and children, shambling forward, their faces serene, expressionless. A noise came from behind him as the Prussian ascended the ladder slowly, as if in a trance, the rifle clutched in his hands.

    “There is no time to waste,” he said to the frightened youth. “We can still give them the slip – the horse is weak, but it can carry two on its back, and we’ll be faster than they are. Quickly, grab your belongings and come with me.”

    For a moment it seemed that the youth would oblige, but he stood in the middle of the loft as if rooted to the spot. Fouchet grabbed the sleeve of his jacket. “Come. We have to go now.”

    The Prussian stared at the hand on his sleeve, then at Fouchet, as if seeing him for the first time. The hussar met his eyes and a chilly claw of fear sank into his stomach: they were glassy and dark, like the calm surface of a deep lake hiding untold horrors in its depths.

    “We have angered God,” said the boy, his voice even and calm. “Now we shall stand and bear His judgment.”

    “Stand and bear all the judgment you want,” said Fouchet. Making his way to the ladder, he descended with all the haste he could muster from his leaden limbs. He saw the boy’s resolve falter: he collapsed to his knees, then brought his forehead to the floor as if in prayer, soundless sobs wracking his body, his powerful hands clenching and unclenching in spasms. As his feet touched the dirt floor of the barn, Fouchet heard a terrible, inhuman howl, then a stream of babble in German. Unable to understand, the hussar inferred from the tone that the boy was praying.

    He had no time to lose. Soon the creatures would pick up their scent and start toward the barn. With movements drilled into his fingers by years of practice he saddled the frightened horse, checked the charges in the carbine and pistols as above him the Prussian howled and prayed. Fouchet hoped a spark of reason remained, enough for the boy turn the rifle on himself when the hungering dead came for him.

    With strength he didn’t know he possessed, he led the terrified animal to the door and lifted the stout cross-beam from its hooks.

    “They are slow,” he said to the horse, holding the reins firmly. “We can outrun them.”

    He threw the doors open and leapt into the saddle. Several of the things were already before the barn, having smelled living blood inside. Many swarmed the village, but they were far apart enough for him to make his way through. Beyond the bend in the road lay open fields and forests which he knew.

    Fouchet cursed and spurred the horse. The animal’s training overcame the instinct screaming in its brain and it charged forward, into the throng of the dead. Fouchet discharged both pistols into the mass of arms and teeth and jaundiced eyes burning with unholy hunger. Two shriveled heads blossomed into pink clouds, blood and specks of gray matter spattering those around them. The gap in the crowd grew narrower but the horse and rider cut through it, evading the outstretched arms. The scattered things before them changed their course, slowly, clumsily. The horse easily outpaced them as its hooves hit the road, the distance between them increasing. Around the bend, Fouchet thought, turn the corner and we’ll be safe.

    He turned to cast a parting look at the barn perched atop the slope. The dead were swarming through the open doors, more and more joining those already inside. Fouchet thought of the boy, trapped in the hayloft with his rifle and a shot or two remaining. Had his mind already surrendered blissfully to madness? Or was he pacing the floorboards in terror as cold, pale arms stretched from beneath and teeth gnashed in a frenzy of bloodlust? He was safe from the things climbing into the loft. Even if their minds still retained the reasoning to ascend the ladder and claim their grisly prize, their limbs no longer possessed the skill to do so. But what they lacked in wit and ability they made up for in patience. They would wait. The dead could afford to wait. If only the Prussian would gather his senses enough to…

    A flash bloomed at the barn window, followed by a plume of white smoke. Fouchet felt the dull impact of the ball striking the flesh of the horse a moment before the crack of the rifle-shot reached his ears. Then the ground was rushing toward his face and an explosion of pain as his shoulder met the road.

    Blackness engulfed him for a moment. He lay on his back, his eyes filling with the azure of the sky, the green of the grass and trees. Around him he heard footsteps: unnatural, fitful.

    Pain assailed him from all sides: his shoulder was torn from the impact, possibly dislocated from its socket, and a gash in his forehead sent a fine spray of blood into his eyes. He tried to drag himself into a sitting position and screamed as his knee twisted at an impossible angle, trapped under the bulk of the dying horse. In this respect he had judged the Prussian well: he was an excellent marksman. The animal lay bleeding from its neck, its forelegs moving but its eyes already glossing over. He felt the stickiness of its blood all around him. And so did they.

    Fouchet gritted his teeth and heaved his leg from underneath the horse. The pain was exquisite, unbearable; he felt unconsciousness loom at the back of his brain, willed it away. The leg appeared to be unhurt, but as soon as he tried to support his weight on it he cried out and sank back to the ground. Shaking with effort, he tried again, using the carbine as a crutch. This time he was able to stand upright, his weight fully on the other leg.

    The nearest of the things was less than a dozen yards away. More had turned and were heading in his direction, drawn by the spilled blood. He made a few agonizing steps toward the line of trees. It was useless; he would not get far on one foot, not with them on his trail.

    The hussar stared at the carbine in his hands, then at the nearest ghoul. The contemplation lasted but a few moments; then he brought the stock to his shoulder and blew the thing’s head clean off its shoulders. The ones further down the road paid no heed; they ambled slowly, relentlessly. Fouchet drew his cavalry saber.

    There was no room for error. He could already smell the carrion stench of the dead, the mindless, low groans that came from their lips. Some of them had already reached the fallen animal and started to bite and tear. To his relief he saw that death had already set in the dark orbs of the horse’s eyes.

    He pointed the tip sword at his heart and pressed until the tip cut into his skin.

    “Not like this,” he said. “Anything but this.”

    One final time he thought of the boy trapped in the barn, of the battles he’d been in, of the brothels and dance-halls of Paris and the great cities though which he had paraded as a victor. Then he was falling forward, falling through a great, limitless space as the world dissolved around him and the veil of merciful oblivion covered all.

    11 Comments

    1. Awesome story, kept me on edge the whole time. I especially like the period of time this takes place. Keep em coming.

      Comment by Terry on August 31, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    2. Really enjoyed it. Some foor for thought , no Ramboing your way out.

      Comment by MadMac on August 31, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

    3. Great story!! The historical context was oh so fine.

      Comment by John the Piper's Son on September 1, 2012 @ 12:09 am

    4. wow a great read!

      Comment by greg wagner on September 1, 2012 @ 4:14 am

    5. Excellent work! I really enjoyed it.

      Comment by Retrobuck on September 2, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    6. Well done – rivetting! Great characters, well developed. Any more stories from that setting of the dead?

      Comment by JohnT on September 3, 2012 @ 1:11 am

    7. german kid was insane, makes me mad that he did not allow his fellowman to escape. really good story and very well written, thanks for a great read!

      Comment by bong on September 3, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

    8. Thank you all for the great feedback! The story actually started out as a black comedy (the Undead in three-pointed hats, Evil Dead-style), but quickly went down a darker road. I’ll definitely revisit the Napoleonic zombie idea.

      Comment by Damir on September 3, 2012 @ 4:45 pm

    9. I enjoyed the hell out of your story, i recommend continuing the story and making that part a dream sequence!

      Comment by Gunldesnapper on September 4, 2012 @ 9:26 am

    10. Just to second what may others have already said, magnificient story, loved the setting. It would be good to see this world from some other perspectives.

      Left me with many unanswered questions that I hope you will answer in future installments.

      Comment by Lord Dave on September 5, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    11. amazing, dude. it just sucks that the kid went insane, but i guess i would too if i was about to be eaten by my aunts, uncles, parents and strangers. ;)

      Comment by BARON HAIL on September 27, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

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