Chapter 35: GUARDS AND SERVANTS
Ethan and Aidan came out of the woods of Fortis in higher spirits than expected. The day was long, the journey was tedious trying to keep a good footing through the pathway in the woods, and trying to keep conversation lively as they walked farther than usual. The knights of Springborough didn’t do much long trekking. They were living on an island, for the record, and so what was the point of making sure one could travel long distances, when the only bridge was destroyed, and nobody from the Kingdom needed to go as far as the docks. There was a mountain on the other side of the castle, but nobody had seen the Northern edge of it as far as anyone could recall, and nobody really had any inclination to hike up it. The people could almost see the entire island of Springborough from the castle walls, why would anyone need a higher vantage point?
Aidan had heard of one man that scaled the mountain wanting to sketch an accurate portrayal of the whole land. His name was lost to the guard, and the man was lost to the world. He never came back down. Legend has it that he is still up in the mountain, at the very top, and like most legends of old men at the top of mountains, he has all the wisdom of the world.
“You ever hear the fable of the man who climbed the mountain?” Aidan asked Ethan, the field of Springborough coming into view, just in time for the sun to finally set on the horizon.
“That’s the one.”
“Robert was his name. His people went to Fortis.”
And that was it. After a long day of walking, it seemed that conversation had finally failed the two men. Ethan handed his bag of bones over to Aidan to stretch his hand, and then reached for it back. Neither of them talked of the very real possibility that a spirit of one of their fallen brethren was walking with them.
Jimmy was five steps behind the two men, spiritually worn out from trying to tell them to speed up, to keep going, to make haste back to Springborough so that he could tell Brynn to tell the living that the dead were coming on the seas. But, no matter how hard Jimmy tried to communicate with the men, it did not seem to help. The men, like all living things, could not hear Jimmy, and so the spirit guard just walked behind them, listening to their inane conversation.
He did keep his eyes somewhere else, as well. The closer the three of them got to Springborough the more Jimmy noticed the threat that was looming above them. It did not seem like Ethan and Aidan had seen the danger over their heads, and so Jimmy was in a way glad that he could not communicate with them, because he was almost sure he would have pointed out that the tops of the trees had collected skeletons. And the skeletons would wake as the two talking men would pass underneath, seemingly at rest until the unnecessary conversation passed underfoot, and suddenly the bones were up, and moving, and after a good long while, they would move just enough to be released from the branches and fall to the ground.
They were not heavy, and the bones landing several hundred feet away did not stir the guard’s attention. At first, Jimmy wandered back, as far as he could go until his supernatural leash to his bones forced him to float with this keepers, but he was able to see a number of the skeletons not lose themselves completely in the branches and the fall, to stand and follow. He wondered if Jage and his mate had run into any of them, and hoped the two of them were safe. But, if everyone was talking at a high volume in the woods, not noticing death above, then it was their own fault the problems they were causing themselves.
In front of Ethan and Aidan, the skeletons that were not moving, they were just an added component of the foliage. The trees were very thick at top, with lots of branches curving this way and that, much more so than what they appeared to be closer to their roots, so it was entirely possible that the skeletal figures simply could not break through. It appeared as if they had dropped from the sky, got caught on the branches, and had simply fallen asleep.
Did the skeletons actually sleep, though?
As the three continued down their path, Jimmy stayed a couple steps behind the guards, between them and the crowd of black, snarling bones behind them, gathering in numbers as they dropped from the sky.
Jasper didn’t want to wield a sword. Those are for knights, he thought, when the sword instructor, the man Jasper would regularly play cards with after the royals went to bed, the two of them staying up, nibble on the crusty bread and cheese left on the table for the day, and continue on their same game of rummy that had been going on for, at least, a year if not longer, asked Jasper to grab a weapon to battle the skeletons outside. Corson had come into the castle for the armory, and ran into the servants who were hearing all the distressing calls from outside, but were still keeping up with their daily routines of the castle. Princess Kyrstin had asked them to convene with her when they were done with what they were doing, so they were trying to work quickly, finishing the simple tasks of cleaning out the corners, dusting the windows, making sure the bed sheets were free of arachnids.
One perk of being a castle servant was never having to worry too much about what was going on outside. The people of Springborough had to deal with their own problems, and if they couldn’t, the royal family had to get involved. The royal servants were caught in some place between where their responsibilities were easily manageable, and their perks were readily apparent.
Corson came in for the weapons and saw them, the servants: Jasper and his sister, Stella, Vicks-Anne, the cook Hawken, the baker woman Dylan, and the town seamstress who came in to continue to sew drapes for the dining room windows, Avery- he noticed a lot more people too who could go out to the streets to fight. Nobody knew exactly where Princess Kyrstin was, save for upstairs in the castle, and she was only a distant second thought when Corson told them his plan.
“We need you all to fight, everyone in the Kingdom, so everyone shall take up arms against these figures.”
The apprehension was palpable as all six of them stood before him in their various forms of dress, none of which would ever be confused for the armor of a knight. While Vicks-Anne seemed to be the most confident of any of them, Stella seemed the most against it, which broke Jasper’s heart. The one thing he knew about his sister was that she was not a fighter, but she was also fiercely loyal.
“We are not trained, my Lord,” Avery spoke first, leading the group’s thinking.
“You don’t have to be trained. These things are merely adult sized bugs, easily crushed. But, one would need a weapon to do so. I am taking the castle’s armory to the people, but before I do, you can get your pick, a benefit of being directly employed by the royal children.”
The armory cart, which Corson would pull behind him until he got outside, and then attach it to the backside of a horse, walking with it down the streets, shouting and giving out various tools to kill things to the people, was filled with steel, ropes, and wooden handles. Swords of various sizes were abundant, etched with different designs, the handles either shining or wrapped in leather. There were also maces, which were steel balls attached by chains to wooden handles; with balls either smooth or covered in jagged metal bits that acted as spikes and could rip off the flesh of any enemy (except, in this case, where the enemy did not have flesh) and bows and arrows, that none of the six of them could touch because archery required the most training. Bows, spears, throwing knives, clubs…
Three of the four girls picked up the clubs, weighing them in their hands, making sure they could swing them. Dylan asked if she could go back to her kitchen to get a cast iron skillet. “When bored,” she said, “I sometimes envision an intruder coming into my kitchen, and pretend to use it to knock them out. I do believe I have some training with that.” Corson nodded, and Dylan was off to get the tool she used to melt the butter in, which would soon be used to obliterate skulls.
Hawken picked up the largest knife, thinking like Dylan that since he was used to wielding a knife in his kitchen, he could also use it in battle. Battle, he thought, probably had a similarity to cooking, where the more confident you were, the more successful you would be at it. This left Jasper, who absolutely did not want to fight, but also did not want to lose any attack, and so therefore picked up a bow, and a couple of arrows.
“Do you know how to use that, Jasper?” Corson asked.
Jasper looked at the swords he did not want, the knives he had never cooked with, the clubs he never swung. There was not one thing in the cart that gave him any confidence, and so he chose the bow and arrow because, in his mind, the arrow would travel the greatest distance, and therefore whatever he was meaning to eradicate would never be close enough to touch him. And that was just fine with him.
Aidan and Ethan came to the field, the last part of the journey before getting back to their home. The large kingdom rising into the air, was a symbol of civilization, especially offsetting when one spent the day in the woods and on the beach. Springborough seemed to be the only structure on the island; a large, mystically constructed Kingdom with brilliantly tall walls surrounding it, protecting it, unscalable by any human. The only way into Springborough was the gate, which, Aidan, for the first time in his life, couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing, and then figured out why it appeared so peculiar to him.
“Look!” Aidan pointed. “The gates are closed.”
“What?’ Ethan squinted, across the field, the setting sun not helping illuminate what Aidan was seeing.
“They have closed the gates.”
“Why did they do that, do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
The guards stood there, swords hanging in their sheaths on their belts, skin and clothes soaked in the sweat of a long day, with the bags of bones. They took a breather. They had been out all day, walking most of it, defeating a dozen skeletons on the beach, collecting bones, haphazardly traversing the rocks, sneaking back through the Forest, and now they were faced with a simple field. At first, coming to it, they thought they’d be so relieved to almost be there that they would just take off in a run, but now the wind was out of their sails. They simply stood and looked, wondering what they would do when they got there. Springborough, once the representation of safety, now seemed eerily threatening, as if the closed gates didn’t symbolize a danger outside, but rather the containment of one inside.
“How are we to get in?”
The only way in and out of Springborough that the guards knew was through the gates, which had never been shut before. There was no contingency plan, nothing in place where, if the large wooden doors were closed, they would know what to do. It seemed suddenly a good idea to have a secret door in the back of a castle, a hollowed out tree trunk that led to an underground tunnel. But, these were thoughts in hindsight. Nothing like that currently existed.
That was when a branch broke under foot behind them, and they slowly turned around. The leaves blocked whatever light was coming from the horizon, so at first, the two guards only saw shadows. But then the shadows began to move, and before Ethan and Aidan’s very eyes, the shadows begin to solidify, and the skeletal structures of hundreds of skeletons began to take shape. Trapped in some of the rib cages were still the living, green branches from the trees, and their feet had stepped through so much mud that it appeared they had grown shoes.
Aidan almost dropped his bag of bones, but then remembered that it was the only reason why they were there. And that they were almost home; gates closed or not.
“Ethan,” Aidan said as the shadows stepped closer. “Run.”
And the two guards turned, and with every ounce of strength left, ran toward the solid, impenetrable walls.
It was Stella who saw her brother immediately relinquish his bow and arrow to the girl that was JJ’s sister in the streets; JJ, the handsome boy who had been the captain of a ship. She knew her brother had a soft heart, but she never knew it was softer than hers, and as they walked down the streets, and she used her club to smash down the bones of anything that came at them without skin, she was surprised to see Jasper simply running, helping people up that had fallen, walking beside the cart and handing out weapons to the towns people who came up, helping Corson arm the town.
The blonde girl had appeared in a doorway, her hands and forearms covered in blood that didn’t wash away, looking like a butcher. While Stella was taken back by the image, Jasper apparently wasn’t, and immediately shouted out her name.
“Brynn!” He said, reminding Stella what the girl called herself. “You know about bows and arrows, don’t you?”
Brynn, thoughts elsewhere, simply looked at Jasper and nodded.
Prince Thomas appeared behind the girl and looked around at the sky. Stella noticed he was not covered in blood, and Brynn was not in any type of restraints, so she was obviously royally sanctioned and not to be feared. Jasper gave Brynn his bow and arrow, the prince gave Corson instructions to light torches, and the guard Stella was the most fond of, Dominic, came running up to tell everyone about two guards at the castle walls.
After that, they were off, the wagon forgotten, as the group ran toward the two guards who were stranded on the outside. There was talk of where Patrick the Giant was, and if he would be needed in order to open up the gate, since the large latch was immobile. Prince Thomas asked Corson what good were doors “if, once closed, they could not be opened again?”
“They can be opened, your highness, after several chops at the wood with an axe. A single man would take days to open the gates, but they can be opened again. It is to ensure that if they were ever closed, it was a for a good reason. And if they were to be opened again, it was for a better one.”
“Are you saying the lives of the two men are not a good reason to open the gates?”
“I’m saying to weigh the situation when you get there.”
Stella was a fast and agile runner, so even with the heavy club in her hand, she found herself at the front of the servant pack, only coming up behind the archer, Corson, the Prince, and the guard with the boyish good looks. Even so, they were far enough back where she believed the royals paid them no mind. Stella saw Brynn’s skill, and realized how good of an idea it was for Jasper to give her the bow, as Brynn easily incapacitated three skeletons that were in her path, sending the arrows with pinpoint accuracy through their eye sockets.
Between the wagon and the wall, Stella only had to swing her club once to protect the group, a nice uppercut shot that sent a skull to a roof.
At the wall, they climbed the stairs that were only wide enough for one of them at a time. There was no rail or anything so they had to be careful not to drop off the side to the ground below, which, closer to the top, would have severely injured any of them. Out of breath and excited to see what was out there, they ascended in silence, watching the backs of the feet of the person in front of them, making sure to not step on any heels, keeping their right hands on the walls bricks, feeling the coolness of what had been in shadows the second half of the day.
The first thing they saw at the top was the sun setting far off in the horizon.
The second thing they saw were the two guards, frantically waving their arms, and what looked like a black wave of water rushing up to swallow them. As their eyes adjusted to the sun, they saw it wasn’t water at all, but a collection of the boney dead, half running/half hobbling toward them. The panic of the two guards suddenly becoming completely understandable to the hodgepodge collection of Springboroughians above.
“Get a rope,” Thomas instructed. “Unless we have a ladder handy?”
“None of the required length to get these two men to safety.”
“Then a rope!” Thomas shouted, his fear matching the men’s. Nobody wanted to see these two men suffer the fate of all the bones coming toward them.
Stella saw it first, the rope just resting on top the wall from when Patrick lowered Jage and Juba to the ground. Whoever had last touched it, did not return it properly and so it was all gnarled and twisted into knots.
“Skeletons are halfway across the field!” Dominic shouted from the wall. The men below had begun to try to climb up into Springborough, but their fingers could not collect purchase on the brick, and after several attempts, with chipped nails, and skinned tips, they stopped, and merely pounded at the stone with their fists, begging the people above to help them.
Stella and Avery unravelled the rope furiously, fumbling from the pressure of having to do the task quickly. The two girls communicated well at trying to get the knots out, helping them each other to thread the rope back through holes.
“Try that, and I’ll keep working on this end,” Avery said, tucking her long brown hair into the back collar of her shirt, getting it out of the way. “Go.”
Stella, straining against the weight of the large rope now coiled around her shoulder, ambled back to the group. She handed over what they were able to free up to Dominic who passed it on to Corson, his supervisor, who took only a second to look at it, and lowered it over the wall.
Ethan jumped for it, but it wasn’t long enough. A second jump proved his point, and Corson turned to glare at Stella, his misplaced anger hard to control.
The skeletons had already travelled over another large portion of the field, and would be on the two guards in a moment, and everyone would have to watch their two brethren succumb to the sharp, boney fingers. Hawken, a man used to cleaning and cutting meat, thought it would look similar to him preparing a roast, and wondered if he would ever be able to butcher cattle again. Not if it reminded me of the butchering of two guards, he thought silently, but not revealing these personal thoughts to anybody around him,
Avery approached with a couple more meters she freed. The group finally had enough length for Ethan to grab on to. The dry fibers of the rope cut into Corson’s palms as Ethan began to climb up, leaning back, stepping on the bricks, trying to ascend carefully, but at the same time, quickly, as the sounds of hundreds of feet on the field were beginning to be the only sounds that could be heard; the sounds of feet from behind and of encouragement from the people above.
“Climb!” Prince Thomas demanded of his man, and Aidan looked between Ethan and the approaching horde with worry in his eyes. He estimated the time it would take for Ethan to get to the top and for him to start climbing, and saw his fate coming to fruition.
Through clenched teeth and tight lips, Aidan demanded Ethan hurry.
Dylan, seeing that something extra had to be done for the sake of everyone to be safe, pushed her way to Corson, and took a position behind him, grabbing onto the rope as well. They begin to pull as one, lifting the guard farther and faster into the air. Now all of the servants began to want to help lift Ethan and Avery. With still one more tangled mess of rope, they worked through the last knots, giving everyone their own piece to pull. Only Thomas and Brynn kept their eye on the situation as everyone else strained, sweat, and grunted, bringing the man to safety.
Once Ethan crested and grabbed onto the top of the bricks, Thomas and Brynn reached over, grabbing his waistband, and lifted the guard, who was exhausted and white as a summer cloud, to the top of the wall safely. Ethan collapsed on the ground at everyone’s feet, his pure weakness matching them all as if saving him took up every last ounce of energy from everyone. But, the task wasn’t done, and as Aidan shouted from the field, they lowered the rope to the long haired guard who held both bags of Jimmy’s bones in one hand, and had absolutely no idea how this was going to work.
“I only have one hand!” he told the people above, letting them know he’d be of little help in climbing.
He thought about leaving the bags of bones. After all, what would the skeletons do with them? But, Aidan had never failed a task in his life, and he didn’t think that the bags were going to be his undoing. He looked behind him, and the skeletons were almost upon him anyway. His final act would not be abandoning his task. So, he grabbed the end of the rope, and he used it to tie the bags to the end. But, instead of having two hands to climb, he used one to unsheathe his sword, and make quick work of two skeletal figures that had gotten close enough.
With the other hand, he held on to his salvation as hard as he could, ignoring the pain that cut into his skin.
A skeleton grabbed his calf, its fingers digging into the cloth and his skin, drawing blood. The group of rescuers above grunted at the extra weight. Aidan sliced down with his sword, but could only get a clear enough angle to hack at his attacker’s shoulder which didn’t matter. The skeleton lost one of its arms, but continued to grab at Aidan with its other. His palm began to bleed, the rope cutting into it, and now his death grip was made slippery.
An arrow whistled past his ear, the air being cut and warmed by the obsidian arrowhead, wooden shaft and eagle feathered fletching. Just as suddenly as the skeleton gripped his leg, it was gone; the arrow finding purchase and ending the skeleton’s existence. Aidan looked up to see where the arrow came from, and saw the blonde girl, another arrow ready, strung back in her bow.
She fired again. And again. Aidan watched her, the setting sun making her hair orange. Her fingers were covered in what looked like blood. She appeared to Aidan as the most vengeful angel he had ever seen. He was only vaguely aware that every time he rose another foot, it was accompanied by a group of people, of his fellow comrades, shouting “Pull!”
Once he was clear of the grasping bone hands, the fingers sharp enough to puncture and pull off his skin; once he felt he was clear of danger, almost to the top, he turned and looked out on the field. It was rippled with a crowd of jet black skulls, not a blade of grass could be seen. There was no way anybody else was coming to Springborough behind him. It was readily apparent that Aidan was the last person who was ever going to enter the walls.
And as he got to the top of the wall of Springborough and was pulled over, he wondered how life would be if nobody was ever allowed to leave the Kingdom again either.