© 2010, Patrick Hester. All Rights Reserved
Elias reined his horse up and whistled to Jaycn, who was riding between he and the rest of the squad to let Elias see if he could scout on his own. It was the twelfth day out from Deisarch Dain and the weather had cleared again, leaving the sky above bright and blue and the sun hot. He’d already stripped away his heavy coat and had kept his gloves behind his belt all day.
Jaycn trotted up and Elias pointed to a point in the Wall where a crack had formed and a tiny stalk of green no more than a cubit tall poked its way out and into the sunlight. It had a single leaf about the size of his thumb.
“Right, good eye. I’ll tell the Sergent. Stay here and watch for anything, understood?”
“Yes.” For some reason, Elias felt the need to pull his rifle from the holster on his saddle. He tried to take in everything from the Wall, to the crack, the fog that hid the forest – even Jaycn as he trotted back to the rest of the squad. He’d found the crack and the plant, but he still felt like he didn’t know really what he was supposed to be doing.
“All right, everyone spread out facing the interior of the island,” Klen ordered as the squad rode up. “We take positions along the Wall, weapons out and at the ready – keep your eyes on that fog! Jaycn, on your way, bring back the Engineers.”
“Aye, Gunny,” Jaycn said, then rode to Elias. “The Engineers live in the Towers and only they can deal with this. Keep your eyes and ears open, I’ll be back in an hour or so.”
“Right.” Elias dismounted as someone came and took his horse. The rest of the squad had already begun taking positions along the Wall, rifles ready and pointed at the trees no one could see. Jaycn spurred his horse and sped off.
Elias took the spot next to Narut, who gave him an uneasy smile. Staring out from the Wall, he could see the blackened earth Fesh had told them about back when they were in training, and that felt like a lifetime ago even though it was only a few weeks. It extended for a mark beyond the Wall, and he couldn’t imagine anything being able to grow out there and wondered how anything managed to grow at all with all the snow they’d seen. Then he thought about the fact that it had snowed for days straight, and yet there was no snow on the ground below. Plus, there was this heat today that he didn’t think could happen – yet it did, almost as if the island itself was radiating a heat from within. That thought soured his stomach. How could an island radiate heat? It had to come from somewhere, right?
“How was your watch?” Narut asked him softly. Neither took their eyes away from the space beyond the Wall.
“Quiet,” he said, just as softly. “And creepy. I did hear the trees rustling just before my watch was over.”
“Oh.” His friend looked green. “You saw those paw prints?”
Eli nodded. Larger than the hoof prints left by the horses, larger than anything he’d seen before, really. He had to study them with Jaycn, who pointed out that his hand fit fully inside the middle while the three toes could each hold another hand spread out.
“I heard about the cats,” Elias said slowly.
Jaycn nodded. “Big ones. Take a horse right out from under you and drag it over the wall with you still in the stirrups. Ever heard a horse scream?”
Elias shuddered. “No.”
“You will. In a full attack, I’ve seen vines come whipping out of the mist, drag a man off or pierce him through. Branches too. Those deaths are immediate. Trees don’t need fresh meat.”
Elias got as comfortable as possible, sighting down his rifle towards the trees. The sight at the end of the barrel glared in the light, so he licked his thumb and rubbed it on the sight. It was going to be a long afternoon and he wanted to be ready for anything.