Continuing from the 17th Fire, Dunman finds himself in a sticky situation. I changed quite a bit from the original draft, but I'm happy where Dunman landed and where he is going. These two fires, Dunman the Slayer and Dunman the Unturned, also taught me to never promise any sort of timeline on content. It only makes me a liar. Enjoy this week's fire and have good Friday, everyone.
Dunman awoke and opened his eyes. Dirt poured into them, causing him to close them quickly. He was stuck.
He began working his arms first, slowly loosening them in the wet, soggy soil.
It took him awhile, but he was able to crawl out of his shallow earthen grave, caught in the pile-up of dirt from the crater of a cannon blasts. It was night when he rubbed the dirt out of his eyes and gazed around.
His eyes started finding shapes and movement amongst the stars' illumination. The milky way acted like a glowing backdrop against the shadows of the ruined wall, destroyed towers, and shambling corpses of the dead.The groans and shuffling of undead was all that Dunman could hear.
He felt different. Nothing seemed to be where it should be inside him. He knew it was a common side-effect of blast shock, but he had never experienced it so harshly and visceral
Dunman knew he was among them from first step, but, even after all his commotion undigging himself,they continued their search for food, thankfully ignoring him.
He shambled along, blending in with the undead. They occasionally bumped into them, but they ignored him. Dunman thought his smell must be off pretty bad to ignore him as such. The wound must be raising a stink he couldn’t smell. Had to be bad enough to confuse some fresh dead. Over the course of the next few hours, he finally made it through the torn rear battery.
As he searched where the rear guard was formerly stationed, the sun was starting to break, slowly brightening the destruction. The rear guard was completely gone. All heavy equipment packed and moved what seemed to be at least a week ago, according to the wheel tracks. The front of the line, down where Dunman had unburied himself was unrecognizable. Craters and debris scattered around with two or three burnt husks of guard towers poking up. The front line had been decimated.
But the curious thing to Dunman was that the tracks led back, back into the kingdom in the West. Dunman and the other front guard had understood that after this battle, the front line of the Easterners would be broken forever. The plan was to continue heading East, clearing the dead, and liberating common people who wished to abandon their heretical ways.
Instead the rising sun came up over the battlefield, the dead peppered through the only signs that their was casualties other than the scarred land and the bubbling pools of acid still snagging and slowly melting the random undead. It was a scene that disturbed Dunman. The King’s guard was supposed to dispatch all dead, even those of the battlefield.
He looked down at a gaping wound in his left side, exposing his rib cage. It didn’t hurt, which worried Dunman more than if it did.
He was also hungry. He had a gnarled, twisting sensation in his gut ever since he awakened and it was only getting worse. It felt as though he had not eaten for weeks, his stomach felt so knotted up.
He had to find supplies. He knew that if the wagons were to be heading back, Lord above knowing when they had, Dunman’s best chance would be to check the secret resupply drops to the northeastern part of the battlefield. There, in the thick woods, scouts had hidden satchels with rations, smoke signal powder, and weapons to dispatch the undead. All buried under stickmen hanging in trees. It spooked the nomadic locals enough to stay away from the caches.
Dunman headed out, determined to survive this. The encampment was gone, the battle over, yet he had this feeling that something was not right. Like something had happened after he lost consciousness that swayed the battle, perhaps? He did not know, and the signs pointed to an immediate pull-out, something that made no sense.
This was supposed the one battle, the one that ended this decade-long war and restore peace on the continent and light to God.
He had to regain himself first. He would be no service to his King in his current state.
I took the greater part of the day into the late afternoon before Dunman found the first stickman, hanging over a dense portion of brushing and undergrowth. He did a little digging before he had found a few bread rations, carefully wrapped in paper, tucked in along with some knives, trowels, and a few bags of powder for throwing in fires, each one producing a different colored smoke.
Dunman tore into the packaging, and eagerly wolfed down the dense bread contained within. As soon as he swallowed he regretted ever putting it down his gullet. Something was horribly wrong with the bread. It stung like bile acid as he coughed it back up, along with whatever black chunks of residue lay within his stomach lining. His body was on fire as he gagged and hacked. It felt as though his gut was going to turn inside out of his body.
As he retched for what seemed like hours, the sun slowly turning down into the pines, Dunman heard the lone snap of a footstep on a dry branch. He reached and pulled out one of the knives from the unwrapped supply cache and turned, still heaving, trying to gain his composure.
It was a lone woman, her bow pulled back, arrow aimed at Dunman. She already had him, the twig snap was to catch his attention.
Dressed in the usual leather garbs of a Nomad, she was young, much too young to be out in the lone. But she appeared ready, ready for whatever horrors might be out here in this godless expanse of wilderness. She was certainly ready for even the likes of a trained Slayer like Dunman.
“Speak, or be done with you”, she spoke firmly, yet with tonal softness of a woman.
“Dunman”, Dunman coughed, finally beginning to feel the burning sensation alleviate. “I am Dunman, Slayer for the King’s Guard.”
Dunman did not care if this Nomad woman be aligned with the Easterners or others, he was not going to die on a lie. Proud and true, a Slayer through and through.
“I thought your lot left ten sunrises ago… Why you still here?” She asked, using the point of her arrow for emphasis on the question.
“I was left for dead it seems.” He lifted his left hand and used his right to slowly expose his gaping, bloodless wound. His rib cage was showing, the white bone rising slightly with each ragged breath Dunman took.
“What’s that on your right hand there?” She slightly pulled the bow at his hand. “Looks like a bite. The nasty kind”
Dunman had forgotten about his wounded hand. Shocked, he lifted his hand in front of him, examining it slowly. There were clear bite marks embedded in his hand. The dirt had rubbed away, showing the distinct markings of human teeth.
As he turned it around, he knew that this was not possible. He recollected being bitten, it all came back to him quickly, and he distinctly remembered not being able to dress the wound properly. He should have turned way over a week ago. But this Nomad woman had just told him these events were over ten days ago.
“Yes, yes I was bitten. During the battle.” Dunman still looking at his hand, disbelief still running through his mind.
“Shouldn’t you be a damn one, then?” Her voice was starting to crack ever so slightly, alerting Dunman that she could still shoot him at anytime with her trained arrow.
“I should be. Am I?”
“Never known a damn one to talk back, so I expect not.” She lowered her bow, a stupid mistake, but one that Dunman was not going to capitalize on. For now anyway.
He suddenly noticed her scent when he inhaled slightly from his nose from the relief of her lowering her bow. She smelled good.
She looked at him up and down and then her eye got really wide. Her expression gave one of acknowledgment, like she had figured out the entire problem.
“I know, I know!” She excitedly said, still keeping her voice down, as a Nomad would. “You are an Unturned! You know, one of those trapped between life and undeath.”
Dunman did know what she spoke of, but he had not heard tales of Unturned for many years, long before the war began, back when he was still slamming an axe into the side of cedar. It was one of those stories, like Ancient Ones or Undead Eaters, and all stories that were just that.
If they were even true, they had happened so long ago that they had become fairy tales.
Dunman wasn’t ready to accept that explanation. It might be, but he was more certain that maybe he was just grazed by the damn things teeth, something other than him becoming some sort of undead monster.
“My mother used to tell me stories about Unturned, how they had the curse of the damn ones, but kept the mind of men.” The girl seemed to be becoming more excited at this prospect. Her arm let the bow string untaunt, allowing the arrow to point at the ground. “They would come in times of great need, she used to say. The last great war, they said the Unturned rode into battle, pushed the King’s forces back to the West, many, many lifetimes ago. They didn’t come this time though…”
The sky was starting to turn the setting colors of orange. Dunman stood up fully, extending his aching, but mostly still-there self. The girl looked at him like he was a fabled hero now, a twinkle of fancy tales dancing in her eyes. Dunman needed this break.
“Do you have shelter? A place for me to gather my thoughts, mend my wounds? I promise no harm to you and yours, my vows as a Slayer.” Dunman put his his right hand over his chest, swearing to keep his oath.
“And a Slayer as well!” The nomad girl seemed to be becoming more warm by every word from Dunman. “You really are a character out of my mother’s tales!”
She gathered herself and pointed North. “Me and mine are up here. It’s a long way, it’ll be far into night by the time we get there.”
“Then we should go,” Dunman said as he gathered up the few weapons left by the cache, along with the smoke powder.
Without saying anything further, they left deeper into the northern woods, the bread left crumbled behind.
Dunman could smell the camp before they saw it. It wasn’t the smoke or the animals, but the people he smelled. He had noticed that over the next few days, his scent of humans becoming unique, powerful. He could start telling who was who, simply by the scent they left behind. And they weren’t bad smells. Just different.
The Nomad girl, named Rene, Dunman later learned, and her people lived by travelling and by gathering. Right now there seemed to be an abundance of berries near a stream, so they had stopped here for a week or two, depending on the land, depending on the undead. So far the war South had soaked up most of the undead, so Rene and her people had been living happy.
Rene’s people also had avoided the war, staying far to the North above the action. The King’s Guard had used Nomads, mostly for scouting and information. They weren’t really anything other than hard people who had adapted to living in hard conditions, preferring to be just left alone.
Dunman also found that he could eat meat, and preferred it raw, at Rene’s suggestion. She told him her mother said that “Unturned got the stomach of a damn one, and they have to eat like one too.”
That explained why everyone had smelled so different and strong.
Why his wound began to close, scar over, but not heal.
Why he slowly stopped raising his chest to breath, finding he did not need breath other than to smell.
All these were traits of an Unturned, Rene told him.
Dunman wondered if he could consider himself a Slayer as he sewed the tears and rips to his garb. His dark colors and tightly knitted clothing all reminding him of his vows as a Slayer and what he must do to himself if ever threatened with undeath: Make sure he didn’t become one of the undead.
Yet here he was, no need to even breath anymore, slowly mending his cloth with a needle and thread. He didn’t really know what to do. The only thing that kept him wondering was why they had even come out here in the first place. Why had the King waged a decade long war, only to turn around and leave at the last victory? It defied everything that they fought so long and hard for.
The thread was pulled out by Dunman’s finger, realizing that he had stuck himself all the way through with the needle on his index finger. He had felt nothing, something else he had noticed lately. He could still feel texture and temperature, but pain had no sensation. He didn’t know if he liked or hated it.
Rene came in as he was pulling the thread out of his finger. She stood there for a second, as was her usual way of greeting, and then waved for Dunman to come out of the tent.
“The old ones want to see you,” She said referring to the group of elders that led this tribe of nomads. “I think they’re going to tell you to go.”
“I will let them tell me and I will do as they command. I have kept my vow to you and yours.” Dunman stood up and clasped his newly repaired armor.
“Yeah, you have.” Rene gave that little smirk that Dunman had seen come more and more from her in the last two days. Though he had only been here for five days since his arrival, they had talked for most of them, him learning of her, her people, and the tales her recently departed mother would tell her.
Rene, in turn, learned of Dunman, his village in the old woods, and his oaths and duties as a Slayer. He didn’t mention much of the war to Rene. He didn’t really like to think about it himself.
Dunman followed her to the another, larger tent. Inside, ten mostly middle to late-age men stared at Dunman as he entered and sat next to the exit, ready to leave.
They did tell him to go. They said that a servant of the King had no place among Nomads. Not only that, but that he had a bigger curse than that. An Unturned they all called him.
The oldest one laughed as he blew smoke from a freshly lit pipe, the orange glow of embers lightly accentuating the lines and creases in his weathered face. “You will not find a home among humans, Unturned. You will never find what makes you human, ever again.”
Dunman left the big tent and headed directly out of the camp, into the wooded wilderness.
Rene ran up behind him as he was a ways into the woods, holding a pack with her.
“I brought you some things you might need if you’re going to find ‘your purpose’ or something heroic, just like in those tales I seem to know so much about, according to you.”
Dunman gave a rare grin as he took the pack from Rene, examining the contents of old maps, compass, some light and fire sources, and a few pieces of rare venison. She also had something else strapped to her back, Dunman noticing the hilt protruding from her shoulder.
Rene glanced over her shoulder at it, “Nice, huh? My brother found it in that stream when we first found this berry nice place,” putting a hard emphasize on her little pun.
“I had to trade a bunch of squirrel pelts to get this. He basically has a squirrel pelt blanket, all for one large, unwieldy, old sword.”
She reached around and unslung the sword and a newly made sheath and strap and handed it out to Dunman by her outlifting arms, kneeling down as though offering it to a hallowed knight.
“Stop that,” Dunman said stoically.
Rene looked up at him, gave him that same grin, and then stood up and thrust his gift into his open hands.
“Just take the damn things,” she said, losing the grin and looking a little sad.
Dunman unsheathed the sword and admired it. It was a very fine blade, one tempered in the old age, it looked like. The steel held firm and balanced, no bends as he gave its long, double-ended blade a few swings into the open, before resheathing and slinging it over his shoulders.
“You are good man, Slayer. But the old ones are right, you’ll never fit around humans anymore.” She reached into the pack and pulled out one of the old maps.
“One of the stories my mother told, one that I hoped I wouldn’t have to tell you, was about the Unturned Kingdom,” Rene continued as she traced a line on the old map. “Remember I told you about the Unturned joining in the last great war?”
“Yes” Dunman answered, looking at what Rene’s finger run along the map showing the great northern expanses, far to the northwest. Farther North than even his old village was.
“Well, they had a kingdom of their own, far into the frozen wastes. Trained and fought in ancient ways, they were once knights and protectors of this whole land, just like in the tales.”
Rene’s finger settled on a circle with the letters “UK” written inside.
“They came from here, my mother told me.”
Dunman nodded and then took and folded the map up, putting it in his armor’s pocket.
“Your mother told you a lot. I only wish I could thank her for telling her daughter.” Dunman put out his hand to shake.
Rene took it and gave it a firmer shake back.
“Hey, you just made me a part of one of her stories, Slayer.” Rene gave him one last grin, then turned and ran back to her people, to her camp in the woods, next to the berry patches.
Dunman gave one last grin himself. He turned and began tracing the map, following it’s route into the great Northwest expanse and toward the Unturned Kingdom.