What follows is the fourth installment of The Green Knight, written for the #SwordsofStValentine event. Please enjoy.
Women & Children First
Ajax had been jogging toward the reservoir when he felt the distant concussion just beneath the threshold of hearing. When, less than a minute later, the whine of the ancient siren cut through the serenity of a warm afternoon in the settlement, he broke into a full sprint almost instantly. Rather than doubling back to the gate, though, he continued ahead. He knew that the rapid-response teams would be deploying to deal with whatever the threat was. Having one more man - and one fantastically under-armed by comparison - would not make much difference. By contrast, there were several thousand women, children, and elderly who would be making their way to the shelters upon hearing the raid siren. There would always be a need for someone to help guide the vulnerable to safety.
Besides which, he already knew that ahead was Sarah.
He arrived at the shore of the small lake that served as the settlement water supply to see the shelter protocols already underway. People were filing in an orderly fashion, some from the clusters of public buildings scattered around the lake, others coming across the farm land from the more distant homesteads, all streaming toward a massive structure on the west side of the water. This building was called the Long Hall, and it served as the community’s civic meeting hall, a site for religious observance - and in the last extremity of a Blight attack, as a mass shelter. In the cellar of the Hall, amongst weapons and provisions and tools of varied kinds, there was a heavy hatch which led, via a ladder set into a reinforced concrete tube, to a substantial bunker which was large enough to contain the entire population, foods, and weapons for an extended period. It is was designed to allow the people of the settlement to be comfortably concealed should Blightspawn breach the wall, and make it possible to wait out their attackers.
Ajax scanned the area for sign of his objective, and found her calmly guiding a stream of children from the nearby school as they linked up with one of the larger throngs moving toward the Long Hall. A simple dress of rough brown fabric covered the strong, lithe form beneath. Though the cloth was humble it did its job well, making clear where the girl’s body curved in a most appealing way. Her hair was a fiery, almost iridescent red, framing a round face with high cheekbones beneath sparkling blue eyes that were at once light and deep under long lashes. Here was Sarah King. Here was his heart.
She turned at his call, her face breaking into a beautiful smile which almost erased the concern in her eyes. She closed the distance with him, wrapping her arms about his body as she crashed into him. Her ample bosom pressed against his ribs (she was shorter than he by more than a head) and she buried her face in his chest.
“It’s going to be okay,” Ajax murmured, stroking her hair.
She looked up at him, worried. “But the siren...What’s happening?”
“A Blight raid, we think. Hillman and the wall guards will have things in hand. We just need to get everyone into the shelter as a precaution - but,” he added with an admiring grin, “you seem to have that well in hand.”
“The teachers have kept the children calm, which helps,” said Sarah without letting go of Ajax. “I was about to make sure the infirmary is cleared out. A grandmother from the northern homesteads had been in there overnight complaining of pain breathing. We were keeping her for observation, but I don’t know if anyone was there to help her when the siren sounded.”
Ajax nodded. “I’ll go with you. Two will make it faster if she’s there and needs help walking.”
No sooner had he spoken than the horrible shrieking of Blightspawn echoed from beyond the treeline in the direction of the beleaguered gate, followed by the bellowing report of gunfire as Hillman’s guards opened up on the invading Hunters and Reapers. The pair looked at each other and wordlessly agreed on the need for haste as they ran for a cluster of buildings set apart from the rest of the settlement’s center on the east side of the lake.
The infirmary, as the buildings were called, was given a generous berth by design since it was important both to provide a quiet, restful environment to the convalescent as well as sufficient isolation in the event of any kind of disease outbreak. There was the main building, where patients were boarded, along with a dormitory for the women who were on nursing duty, as well as a storehouse for medicine and other supplies. Interspersed among the buildings were a smattering of birches and maples and oaks.
The noise of battle was ongoing in the background as the pair reached the main infirmary building. Entering, they found the elderly woman already being helped by one of the nurses. However, the grandmother was far from mobile, even with assistance, and the younger woman was, alone, unequal to the task of moving her.
“Go, help them,” Ajax said to Sarah. “I’ll make sure you’re covered on the way.”
Sarah nodded, and went to take the old woman by her free arm. Propped between the two younger women, she could make her way fairly quickly.
Before they left the relative shelter of the infirmary, Ajax confirmed that his magnums were loaded. Both still held the incendiary rounds, unused thanks to the timely intervention of Robert Mayhawk in the forest that morning. A gun in either hand, Ajax used his foot to ease open the infirmary door and out of a quick look stepped outside.
The stream of Freeholders moving toward the shelter of the Long Hall had abated somewhat, though the young pathfinder and the women he escorted were in no danger of being left behind ask they made as quickly as circumstances allowed from the shelter of the infirmary to work their way around the lake. The sounds of gunfire and feral roaring were absent, which Ajax found disquieting. If the wall guards had carried the day, he would have expected the all-clear siren. But on the other hand, if they had been overrun, the settlement would have found itself being picked over by a clutch of Reapers like a carcass by vultures. Instead, the atmosphere vibrated with a sense of bottled up tension as the people of the settlement and even the trees and the birds seemed to be waiting for something, anything to happen.
As the four figures scurried along the shore of the lake, the dam burst. First came a rumbling - or perhaps more accurately a crumbling - followed by a trumpeting, earth shaking bellow unlike anything any of the three young people had ever heard. Their elderly charge seemed to have some inkling of its portents, for she began to tremble with such forcefulness that had been she been walking under her own power, she would surely have fallen.
The second thing that happened was of more immediate significance. There came a sound from the direction of the gateward tree line of snapping and cracking wood. Suddenly, from the midst of the trees and about ten feet up burst the form of a Reaper. Its first leap cleared the tree line by twenty feet, and two more put it on the shore of the lake - right between Ajax, the women, and their destination. For a moment, the monstrosity simply stood there, its tendrils drifting hither and thither like so many snakes trying to scent their cowering quarry.
Ajax glanced toward the Long Hall. There was still a significant crowd waiting to get in. He was not about to let the Blightspawn get to them unchallenged. He glanced back to Sarah and said, “I need you to hang back. That...thing can’t be allowed to get to the Hall.” At first, it looked like Sarah was going to mount an objection, but she pursed her lips and simply nodded.
The pathfinder quietly made his way away from the shore and into a position behind the Reaper. He raised his right pistol, and took aim at the joint of the nearest leg. His finger curled around the trigger, and slowly pulled.
At that second, the Reaper whipped around. The entire mass of tendrils pointed at Ajax as he fully pulled the trigger. The monster roared, and sprang.
I hope you enjoyed this story so far. You may find links to all the installments of this story here as it unfolds.