Previously: “We had pushed into the Twisted Forests and had our first unfortunate encounter with the apparently part-human creatures that dwelt there. Then the factory siren began to sound, heralding our unpleasant welcome...”
Part 9: A Small Fortress
We were surrounded on every side by the thick, tangled branches of untamed and unnatural trees. The ground was uneven and, increasingly, broken by the eroded ruins of collapsed buildings. Mist and shadow obscured the world more than a few metres away from us. We had little idea where we were running to.
But we knew what we were running from.
A sharp crack sounded in the mist and a branch exploded into a shower of bark and splinters not far from my head. I fell backwards and threw my hands up protectively. In an instant, Major Thurlow was crouched beside me, sighting down the barrel of his rifle. He squeezed the trigger and an inhuman shout of pain barked out in response.
The major offered me a hand and smiled lopsidedly. “Take heart doctor. I can't imagine creatures like this have a ready supply of bullets. Every time they fire at us and miss is a cause for optimism.”
“Yes,” I said, brushing splinters from my hair. “Yes, certainly.”
Sigrid called back from somewhere ahead. “Keep moving!”
Thurlow growled and shouted back, “We are moving!”
Then, Sigrid's voice again, a cry of alarm: “Major!”
We sprinted towards her, trees grasping and scratching at our clothes before we stumbled blindly into a clearing. Before we had a chance to fully digest our surroundings, hands grabbed our collars and yanked us down onto the ground. I felt the heat of something whipping close overhead as I fell.
Sigrid and Lady Una were lying against a broken brick wall. The ground was black beneath my hands. Burnt, in fact, soot clinging to my fingers. I coughed, the smell of old smoke filling my lungs. For a few seconds there was a sound like a hail of pebbles hitting stone. Puffs of dust rose from the far side of the wall we sheltered behind. And then just silence.
“EON-4!” Lady Una yelled. “Are you okay?”
His voice was distant, but otherwise unchanged. “I am still fully functional.”
He seemed unworried. “Understood.”
Sigrid pulled a small cylinder from her belt. A telescope, I assumed at first, until she folded one end over and I realised it was a periscope, that most useful of tools for any modern soldier. She gingerly peeped the topmost lens over the wall and put her eye to the other end. “An automated turret. I've faced those kinds of things before, in the Danegeld War. We've got no chance without armoured vehicles or a couple of weeks and a dedicated team of trench diggers.”
“It's not the creatures?” I asked.
“Maybe it is,” Sigrid answered. “But they'd have to be a lot more technically minded than I'd have thought.”
She offered the periscope to me and I peered through it. Ahead was a clearing in the forest. The trees had been burnt down in a wide circle of black earth. In its centre was a large but dilapidated house, held up only by the ugly and leafless tree that seemed to have burst out from beneath its roof. At three points around the house were fat metal poles topped with gatling guns and an array of mirrors. As I watched, one of them twitched, turning its mirrors on a different part of the tree line. Not far from us, but on the wrong side of the wall, EON-4 lay on his front on the ground, perfectly still.
I handed the periscope to Thurlow. “It's Fortress City's little brother.”
A gunshot sounded from within the forest and we all ducked down closer to the ground. Sigrid scrabbled to bring her rifle to bear, but before she even had a chance to get her finger on the trigger one of the turrets opened up, bullets whipping overhead and into the trees. There were a few more scattered gunshots from the forest, but with no indication that it was more than a token gesture of defiance.
“We're in a pretty nasty position here,” Thurlow hissed. “The forest creatures know this ground better than we do. If we can get this close then there's no reason they couldn't. We have to either get back out there or...”
Lady Una took her turn with the periscope. “Or get on the right side of those turrets. Hallo, who's this?”
From the direction of the automatic gunfire, a weak and uncertain voice: “If you're looking for a safe place in the Forests, you've found it! Who are you? You look unchanged. Can I trust you?”
Thurlow laughed and said, under his breath, “You can't trust anyone, you fool.” Then responded aloud, “We're a team of explorers from Fortress City. Aid us, and you'll be handsomely rewarded.”
We must have all looked at him because he shrugged and whispered. “Well, our company is a kind of reward in itself, surely?”
“Do you have supplies?”
I looked at the moderately sized satchels we each carried. Before Thurlow could answer, Lady Una shouted, “No!”
A pause. From outside the clearing, a vague sense of movement. Branches moved and leaves rustled.
“The guns are off!” the voice said. “Move quickly! The first forest dweller I see, they're coming back on and they won't distinguish friend from foe!”
Thurlow experimentally lifted his rifle butt over the wall. When the guns didn't fire, we got to our feet and ran towards the house, picking up EON-4 as we went. Standing beside the nearest turret was a dishevelled old man with a scraggly beard and ripped, unwashed clothes that must once have been a rather smart suit. A broken shotgun hung over his arm. He eyed us each in turn as we approached, a mixture of manic emotions evident on his face, not least of all suspicion.
When we finally stood before him, he seemed unable to speak.
“How long have you been holed up in this old place?” Thurlow asked, looking over the half-ruined house.
“I... don't know,” the old man said. And then he smiled, clasping his hands. “I wondered if I was the last one left - the last human I mean. This is the Portman family house. I was their gamekeeper. I'm the last of this household left, at least.”
“Interesting toys you have,” Thurlow said, gesturing to the turrets.
“Yes,” the gamekeeper said, as if he only half understood. “Toys. To keep foxes from the pheasants, originally. Peashooters almost. Originally.”
“No offence,” Lady Una said, “but we don't intend to get bogged down here. We need to move on as soon as possible. We need to know everything about the surrounding land. Do these forest dwellers keep your house under constant observation, for example? Will we be able to get back out?”
The gamekeeper opened and closed his mouth a few times, silently. “I don't... know. I did once. But that was a long time ago. Or maybe not so long. I can't tell.”
“Let's go inside,” Thurlow said, “if we may. We could use a chance to rest and eat.”
The gamekeeper nodded. We turned to the house, sitting so incongruously in this forsaken woodland. I was reminded of the Viscount's manor in Circhester - but only in contrast. This was not a pleasant anachronism, not a relic from the idyllic past. Just one of countless ruins that marked the end of human civilisation.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Next week it's into the mind of the gamekeeper! What unhinged lunacy lives alone in the Twisted Forests? What has he learned about the forest dwellers – and perhaps even EON-5? Two of our heroes meet mortal danger in the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!