They were under attack from every side. William dived into the ditch just as an arrow whizzed by so close, it left a bloody track along his temple, as if an angry cat had slashed him. Next to him, Jonas crouched, cradling his broken arm as he tried, with one hand, to bind it tighter to his side.
William reached over to help him. “We need to get out of here now, or we will never make it out alive.”
“Gabby will be here soon. You know she will,” answered Jonas between clenched teeth, sweat beading on his forehead as he struggled against the pain.
“Yes, she will,” William lied, not wanting to acknowledge the possibility Gabby might be dead. The thought was unbearable.
“Where the hell do all these wilders come from?” Jonas choked as his friend and leader tightened the knot. Normally, wilders were found in small groups of four or five scattered over the vast lands.
Here, at the eastern edge of the continent, it had proven differently. As the small group of rangers got closer to the mega ruins, they encountered higher numbers of the lawless, savage gangs. For the last three days, they had been under constant attack. Things went from bad to worse when Jonas was hurt.
“I bet they are nesting in the underground tunnel, the one we thought was caved in. It’s most likely only partially collapsed. There is probably another hidden stairwell to it. The old underground train stations often had several entrances.”
Suddenly, a body hurtled through the air to land heavily on Will, knocking him backwards, followed by another and another. Vicious, deadly killers snarled as they jumped in for the kill. William kicked viciously, the audible crack of his attacker’s knee a satisfying crunch to his ears.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jonas rise above his pain to thrust his sharp, foot-long, thin blade up through the jaw and into the back of the brain of the wilder rising over him. But there was another savage behind, and God only knew how many more were coming.
William realized if he didn’t dispatch this man instantly, his friend would die. He grabbed at the cracked knee and pulled, almost ripping it off, gambling that extreme pain is universally disarming.
As the wild man opened his mouth on the scream, William shoved his own knife into it. He then pulled the blade with all his might, flipped it in his hand, and threw it to sink point blank into the temple of the man rising over Jonas.
Without losing a second, Jonas grabbed the blade as the man fell, pulled it out, and tossed it back to his friend. Outside, a sudden quiet had fallen. “Are they getting ready for another try?” Will wondered aloud.
“Feels like the calm before the storm,” answered Jonas. His usually golden hair was matted brown with old blood; his beautiful golden eyes were dark with pain. At once, the buzz of fletching vibrated in the air, and a wilder, filthy and reeking of old sweat, tumbled into the ditch, almost at their feet. His unseeing eyes were open to the sky above. William’s heart soared. Help was here; Gabby had made it.
“Gabby, is that you?” he hollered to the sky.
“Yes, it is!” she yelled back. “Stay down while we clean up. It’s messy out here.” For the next ten minutes, they could hear the buzz of arrows flying, and the matching thumps as each one met its target.
Their arrows were deadly, fired from tightly wound, small crossbows and tipped with iron. They could pierce through two inches of hard wood easily. The wilders used the larger, cruder, Indian-type bows. These were useless at close quarters, cumbersome, but they were easier to make and better at longer distances.
Will crawled over the dead men to Jonas, pulling him close to comfort and soothe him. He kissed Jonas’s head and whispered, “Soon we’ll have you all patched up. A nice, clean pallet, a couple shots of whiskey, and you will feel brand new.” It seemed he was always making promises to Jonas.
He had promised a tour spent in the wild, scouting and exploring the old ruins, would be a great adventure. He promised they would be fine. He promised they would get rich.
They had all been hollow promises. They needed to get out of this nomadic existence, settle down to hearth and home, and they needed to do it before one of them paid a too-heavy price.
Gabrielle Toussant was covered in mud and dirt. Her thick braid of silvery-blonde hair was presently more of a mottled grey. Her hands were sticky with the blood and gore of her enemy. She was both beautiful and deadly as she went from body to body, savagely pulling out arrows and frisking the corpses for anything of value she could find, and then kicking and cursing each one with gusto.
Value, at this point, meant a weapon or gold links. Wilders did not value the niceties which more civilized society deemed worthy. Wilders were not monsters in the mythical sense.
They were regular flesh and blood men, and there weren’t too many of them, really. They were just men who chose to live in the wild, foraging and raiding for their food and necessities rather than join one of the few, mostly self-sufficient, civilized small communities.
Wilders did not want families, society, or responsibility. They valued only freedom from government. More so, they valued freedom from anything: freedom from farming, ranching, working in general, from bathing, changing clothes, from paying for anything.
There were no female wilders; they kept no women after they were through using them. There were no children among them either. Most wilder groups were small, seldom more than five or six men. But occasionally, a rare and enterprising individual fancied himself a warlord and built a bigger group. This, however, seldom happened.
Jonas was carefully washed, and his arm was set and padded. William made a comfortable pallet for him and settled him for a well-deserved sleep aided by a draught of their best pain-dulling potion. A broken limb was not fun in the wilderness.
“Gabby, come get a bite to eat and then get cleaned up. Or get cleaned up and then eat. You look and smell like a wilder.” He was the pot calling the kettle black. William did not look or smell much better than she did.
She was so glad to see him alive and relatively unhurt. Gabby had been incredibly lucky in her bid to sneak past the enemy. She’d been desperate to get help back to the men she loved more than anything else in life. Gazing at Will, her eyes dwelled on the magnificence of the male.
William Evers was the leader of the small group of rangers. Where he led, be it heaven or hell, they followed. Standing three inches over six feet in height, he was sculpted in graceful but powerful lines which gave him both strength and speed. His features were drawn in sharp edges and planes, mysterious and masculine.
Dark, glossy, long hair and pale olive skin made him exotic. His silvery eyes looked into your soul, but his smile stole your heart. He was astonishingly beautiful. He was also cultured, intelligent, and brave. He was the perfect male in every way.
“We are running out of time, Will.”
He looked at her in silence for a long moment. “I know. I was thinking the same thing back there in the ditch. It was touch and go for a while. I was afraid we were going to lose our golden boy.” His eyes flicked towards Jonas, lying pale and exhausted on the pallet.
“So, what do you intend to do? You are our leader. Lead somewhere other than this hell hole. We have done our part. Let someone else take over.”
William looked up at the ruins of York City in the distance. Those decayed, crumbling, dark skeletons huddled together against the fading light of the day, surrounded by marshes and inhabited by who knew what monsters, were the edge of the world. They were the edge of his world, the world decades after the great pandemic.
Beyond them was the water, and far, far away over the immense ocean, the beginning edge of another world which no one here had ever seen. The histories and diaries left by Daniel Montero’s people spoke of those continents, those distant lands. But this was his world.
He came to the edge of his world searching for redemption and a way out of his pain, and now it was time to go home and find another way to live. He was tired of the wild, and fear of losing his only family, his two lovers, was beginning to eat at him. Life was tenuous at best, and you could only cheat death for so long before the odds caught up with you.
William made up his mind. “This will be our last mission. I will tell Lord Tanis we are ready for a change. He owes me. He will listen to me.”
“We can go back to the battalions. You have a talent for leading men,” she answered.
“Yes, we can all reclaim our old places. If he allows us to stay together, I will go where he sends me. If he refuses me, we will resign and take up trading or farming.”
“Sounds like a good plan to me.”