One—Inexcusable Curiosity

 

“WHERE THE hell have you been, Flo?” Joel’s tone was demanding, curt even. It matched the angry look that creased his face as he launched himself to his feet to face me. “You knew I needed to head off early.” Behind his irritation was the ever-present edge of worry that stained all our lives. Every time someone wasn’t where they were supposed to be, it was there, that nagging thought at the back of your mind.

I flipped my brother the finger and dropped down in a rare patch of grass between the heather our sheep were grazing on. It was early still, and summer mist lingered in the valley below us. Up where we were, it was enough for me to feel the damp seeping through my canvas trousers.

“Seriously, Flo. What the hell? You can’t just disappear like that,” Joel said, continuing his lecture as he dropped down next to me into the well of heather he’d already flattened out as he slept. One of our sheep looked up. She gave Joel a droll look through her rectangular pupils, let out a bleat of annoyance, and went back to her breakfast.

“I didn’t disappear,” I said and absently scratched my fingers through the beard that covered my chin. “I walked away. Not my fault you were sleeping.”

“So then wake me up, dickhead.” He reached forward to cuff me round the back of the head. I knew it was coming and folded forward with the impact so the graze of his hand was even less than the mocking reprimand it was supposed to be.

“Got something good?” His tone lightened, and he eyed up the satchel slung across my chest.

“I thought you needed to get off early?” I arched an eyebrow at the eagerness he was trying to keep under wraps. I dropped back to lean against my hands and gave my best nonchalant shrug, but his gaze darted to my chin. I realized that I’d been caught because of my own greed. I ran the back of my hand over my mouth, and the coarse hair of my beard grazed my calloused skin. Not enough to scrape away the streak of purple that I rubbed from my lips.

“Busted,” chortled Joel.

With a sudden grin, I flashed him the stained palm that I’d tried so hard to keep hidden. My twenty-year-old brother let out a very childlike whoop of glee as he saw that familiar shade of purple.

Bilberry season was short, but it was easily our favorite time of the year. Maybe we loved them just because the pea-sized purple fruits were so damn tasty. Possibly it was the fact that we weren’t supposed to eat them because they were worth far too much as dye to be wasted in mine and Joel’s bellies. Either way I fished out a handful of the first bilberries of the season and offered them to my brother. Soon he had a purple-stained grin to match my own.

“You best stop to clean up on your way home,” I said as we split the last two between us. I handed him a mostly full gathering bag that I’d filled yesterday on my way here, and he slid it into the top of his satchel along with the things he’d need for the trek home. “There are a few more in there to pacify Mum. Don’t eat them.”

“She’ll never know.” Joel grinned at me, flashing all his teeth, and not for the first time I wondered if Mum got confused and I was actually older. Maybe she dropped him on his head or something.

“She always knows, idiot. Plus, she definitely knows the season’s starting. If you come home with nothing, she’ll quarter you. And I don’t want to be stuck out here by myself all summer while your balls grow back.”

Joel and I did two-week shifts with the sheep. It had been better before our dad died. Back then, he and our uncle had also rotated through with Joel and me. That meant two weeks on, six weeks off, and if you were the last one to come out, you could sometimes get away with only one shift. But Uncle Marl said a man needed to be at the farm all the time, and apparently me and Joel didn’t count, even though I turned seventeen two months ago and Joel was already twenty. Uncle Marl pulled out some spiel about not being an adult until twenty-one, and I knew that even by Before standards, that was rubbish. Still, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about it, save count down the months until Joel turned twenty-one and hope that Uncle Marl didn’t come up with another reason he couldn’t leave the farm.

The most frustrating part of the whole thing wasn’t that Uncle Marl got out of getting sunburned and drenched—often on the same day. It was that he wasn’t even from Before. Not that anybody was anymore. Even my grandparents had been apocalypse babies, so it wasn’t as if he’d grown up with arbitrary ages assigned to kids and adults from Before. I reckoned the only way he even knew about it was from reading the Before fiction my Mum collected.

“At least I have balls to lose,” Joel shouted over his shoulder as he started to jog down toward where the mist still resisted the first of the morning sun. Two dark blurs of fur appeared from beneath the heather; Joel’s dogs, Milo and Tiggy, fell in at his heel at an easy trot.

“That’s not what Peritha told me!” I hollered back.

“You been gossiping with the girls again, Flo?” Joel said as he turned so that he was jogging backward in a way that definitely would have seen me on my ass. “Because I know you wouldn’t do anything else.” There was no malice behind Joel’s grin, but I fought back a grimace as his joke struck a little too close to home.

I plastered a familiar smirk onto my face and stuck my middle finger up at my brother—apparently he hadn’t got the message the first time. He just laughed and turned to face the direction of home. I watched him jog easily through the dense clumps of heather. It had taken me a day and a half to get out here, but Joel was taller than me, and he could keep up a jog long after I’d burned out and my muscles had turned to lead. Plus he didn’t stop every fifty meters to pick plants and dig up roots.

I stayed put as he disappeared quickly out of sight, and then with a sigh, I dropped back into the heather, my sight filling with an endless blue sky.

Okay, so my resentment of Uncle Marl probably did have a lot to do with him getting out of this shit. It was boring. I’d not been brought up to deal with boredom. I’d been brought up to do one job and move on to the next. And sure I’d also been brought up to watch the sheep for two-week rotations every summer, but it still drove me nuts. I foraged for herbs, roots, and berries both for myself and for Mum to use in her dyes. But one year I’d been told off for moving the sheep too much and not letting them put on enough weight. So there were still these tedious moments when I had to lie still and do nothing.

I had a book with me, preciously wrapped in expensive plastic to keep it dry, but I wasn’t about to lug around more than one of the damn things, which meant I had to save the words for when I literally couldn’t stand the boredom anymore. I also had plenty of exercises I could do, only if I did too much, I had to forage for extra food, which meant more walking, which—you guessed it—meant skinny sheep.

If it was raining, I could at least waste a bit of time putting up a shelter. I had one I carried with me for emergencies, but it was basic, and taking the time to build a decent shelter could burn hours. Sadly there was no rain due for another day or two.

I let out another slow sigh. A sheep glanced up at me. She gave me a droll look. Then again sheep don’t know how to look any other way. I glanced at my purple fingers, considered the spot Joel had left me in, and decided to forget about him telling me he’d only moved here last night.

Raising my stained digits to my lips, I whistled loudly.

“Move out!” I called as two canine heads lifted out of the heather about a hundred meters away at my four and eight o’clock. Flack and Jasper were my dogs; they were spaniel crosses—although they were probably more cross than spaniel—and they let out low yips of acknowledgment. The sheep ceased their endless munching, half of them looking at me, the other half splitting their attention between the two dogs. I let out another series of whistles, and watched the dogs round up the dispersed herd until there was a dense huddle of a hundred sheep and two mutts staring at me with the same passive awe. I let out another sigh and headed in the opposite direction to Joel.

 

THE RAIN came three tedious days later. It rolled in on an endless blanket of gray and settled in for the duration of the week. I dropped down off the tops of the hills and into the stone-lined valleys. There were trees, which meant more materials for building shelters, more things to forage, but also more shadows for predators to hide in. I kept the herd close and my ears open.

It had been raining for five straight days when I heard the tolling of a bell through the dense air. The damp had long soaked through my wax-coated jacket, and I was glad of my woolen layers, which kept the heat despite the moisture. I sat with my back against a tree, my hat pulled down low over my forehead as I blinked water droplets out of my vision. Flack and Jasper's brown and black heads rose from their own waiting spots, turning toward the strange sound, along with the vapid attention of a hundred sheep.

It wasn’t as if I’d never heard a bell before. In fact, as I worked out where I was, I realized that I’d heard the same bell ringing in a horrendous summer storm a couple of years ago. Back then I’d diverted the sheep there afterward to check it out. The town had clearly been abandoned—decimated—quickly because there were no defenses in place around the remains. Apart from the general overgrowth, I imagined it was like stepping straight back through time and skipping the bloodbath. I’d had a bit of a look around, but the freshly fallen pile of rubble at the base of the bell tower had given me my answer as to how the bell had been rung. Still, I’d thought it was odd that it had been there at all. For one, that was a decent chunk of metal, and metal was usually the first to go when scavengers visited an old town. Then there was the fact that leaving something hanging around that was designed to make noise and attract attention was just downright stupid. But I wasn’t a scavenger, and who knew what went through those guys’ heads? Lingering to work it out hadn’t been an option—not that going there in the first place should have been—so I’d taken my sheep and left quickly, the town fading into memory.

I rose to my feet, still staring out through the rain that fell straight and fat in the absence of any wind. The ringing had sounded different this time: less the random thundering of falling debris, more the deliberate shattering of silence.

Flack and Jasper had turned back to me. They waited for my orders, heads cocked and ears pricked, silent and impassive in their patient judgment. I fished a wild strawberry from the leather gathering bag that hung permanently from my belt and popped it in my mouth.

The bell rang again. This time Flack and Jasper didn’t look round. Flack beat his tail against the ground, and Jasper dropped his dark head against his paws.

“Don’t you judge me,” I muttered through the falling damp as I turned to dismantle the shelter I’d made. What can I say? Talking to animals happened when you spent so much time by yourself.

I took my time removing signs of myself from the area, pocketing the few bits I’d use again, and dispersing the remains of last night’s fire. Despite his apparent disapproval, Jasper obeyed my whistled commands like always, and all 103 of us set off toward the abandoned town.

It had been a few years since I’d been back, and the town had been gone over at least once since then. There were empty spaces where I was fairly certain whole houses had stood—presumably they’d been made of something someone had wanted. The church was still there, almost hidden behind the dark green and even darker brown of two massive yew trees. The roof was gone, the rafters exposed to the crows like a dead man’s rib cage. The bell tower leaned precariously toward a massive crater in the ground next to the building. Between the grass and trees that had taken over the scar lay a handful of rotting coffins, their lids thrown open or blown off, the contents long since gone.

I gave the guard/graze signal silently this time. Flack and Jasper backed off, the sheep stayed put for a long moment, then one by one started to eat or drop to their bellies to rest. I should have left them out of town, because they were quiet, but not quiet enough. Still, breaking the rules by bringing the flock here did not mean I was going to continue my stupidity and let them out of my sight.

Except I was going to go into that church.

My curiosity wasn’t just foolish; it was downright dangerous, because if I’d heard the bell, chances were someone else had too. Something else.

But seriously, who in their right mind rang bells? Stupid people, people with death wishes, or people in danger. All of those answers meant going in that church was ridiculous. But I was bored. And someone might need a hand.

Of course, it could just as easily be a trap.

My knife was at my hip. I checked that it was loose in its sheath and pulled the knuckle-duster hilt of my dagger over my fingers—just in case. I avoided the patches of asphalt that hadn’t been coated by grass as I made my careful way across to the church. I kept my head up and scanned the gaping shadows that had once been doors and windows. The gentle rustling of the sheep would probably give away my arrival if someone knew what they were listening for, but it also hid my breathing and footsteps.

Water dripped from the edge of the woolen hat pulled over my hair. I’d knitted it last winter and it was the same off-gray as the sky. Rivulets tickled my forehead and clung to the edges of my eyelashes, but I blinked through them. In the shelter of the yew, I paused and looked back. The sheep had spread out. A couple of them looked at me. Flack and Jasper had melted into the background, doing their job—doing my job too at the moment. I squatted to check that my spare knife came free easily from my ankle holster, adjusted my satchel so it rested in the small of my back, and finally tightened the main strap across my chest.

I strained my ears, but all I could hear was the rain and the shuffling of bored sheep.

Sheep were pretty good alarms in general—it came with the herd mentality—so with that small sliver of reassurance, I crossed the last fifteen meters to the arch where the church door had once been.

Inside was empty. Everything had been stripped clean, and fairly recently by the look of the tracks through the leaves that lined the broken floor. I glanced back outside. I could still see a few of the sheep munching away. I let the silence hang for a long while and waited—my patience may be sporadic, but that didn’t mean I wanted to die.

Through the skeletal roof I could see the bell tower. The bell itself seemed to hang at a jaunty angle, though of course it was the building that was wonky, not the bell. I tried to work out how long it had taken me to get here—maybe an hour, which was plenty of time for whoever rang it to have left, or died.

A pigeon almost killed me.

Not literally. But it felt as if I almost died as every muscle in my body contracted in response to a damned coo and a flap in the shadowed darkness. I didn’t clutch my chest. I breathed slowly through my mouth, but the damage was already done; my adrenaline levels spiked, and I was going to be coming down from the buzz for ages. The rain muffled the singsong breath of its wing beats as I watched the damn bird fly up through the rafters. With a roll of my eyes, I strode toward the door at the bottom of the bell tower. The door was stuck. I lifted a bit, set my feet, and tugged.

That damned pigeon saved my life.

My heart rate was already elevated. My senses already strung out. It probably gave me less than a half-second advantage. That was all I needed. Pointed fingers raked through the air that my head had recently vacated. The hand that snarled through the door brushed harmlessly across my cheek.

I dropped and rolled backward, leaves scattered in my wake, and a snarling gray-eyed man stormed through the half-open door. I finished my roll and came back to my feet as the man’s head finished an unnatural jerking selection of movements and his empty gaze landed on me.

Things you need to know about zombies: they’re fast, they’re strong, but one on their own isn’t too much trouble. Oh, and they’re not dead.

This one launched himself at me. I sidestepped, and the hand that had almost gouged my face waved through the air in front of my chest. I knocked the arm away with my dagger as the fingers of my other hand slid through the matching hilt of my longer knife. The zombie overturned as he missed me. I kept my blades sharp; the steel slid through the tattered clothes that clung to the man’s frame and into the thin layer of muscle that coated his shoulder.

When fighting zombies it is helpful to slow them down. They move quicker than your average human, but when you’re just dealing with one, it’s generally safe to think of them as little more than a particularly aggressive drunk. A few well-placed cuts will slow them down enough to make the finishing blow easier. That’s the theory at least. My current opponent didn’t seem to have gotten that memo.

My knife had hardly left his skin when the thick line of broken muscles sealed back up behind my blade, leaving behind nothing but a fine red strip of blood.

“What the—?” I didn’t have time to finish my curse. To heal that fast, this one had to be really well fed or really old. Neither option was all that appealing. Cutting limbs off completely was going to be the only way to slow it, and the only thing that would kill it was complete evisceration, mushing its brain, or decapitation.

I definitely should have ignored the bell.

The zombie didn’t even pause at the cut. It continued as if the blade had been no more than a drop of rain as it twisted and swiped at me. I dropped below the jab and jammed the hilt of my dagger into the underside of his elbow. There was a loud crack as the joint went the wrong way. The zombie screamed, or at least it would have, but I got a look inside its open mouth as it tried to vocalize its annoyance, and apparently someone had cut out its tongue.

Which was weird.

But I had more important things to worry about.

It was really pissed at me now. I had a brief moment to take stock as it snapped its broken elbow back into place. The church was empty, the pews long gone, and there was no cover, which meant no nasty surprises and nothing to trip over. It was almost the perfect zombie fighting arena.

I flashed the gray-skinned man a toothy grin as I knocked one of his hands away. It had been a while since I’d stumbled across any infected while I was on sheep-minding duty, and I’d never expected to luck out and find something actually worth practicing on.

I may have been born long after the zombie wars were declared over, I may not have lived through the apocalypse itself, and I may not have had to deal with the half-human creatures every day, but I knew how to deal with a zombie. Out here in the sticks, we were taught to fight young. Zombies were few and far between these days, and they weren’t that prolific in summer, but they were still there. They were always there, and if you couldn’t fight back, you died. Simple.

Zombies aren’t renowned for their intelligence, especially when they’re hungry and alone. In a pack they’ll coordinate their attacks, but by themselves they’re just strong, fast, and hard to kill. This one lunged at me again, but he over-reached. I spun out from in front of it, dragging my blade through the man’s gut. The splatter of rotting meat and bile made my throat clench, but I held my breakfast down and dragged my knife out.

This guy was some serious stuff. I’ve never seen one able to keep going with an empty abdomen. But this one did. I could practically see the cells regenerating inside him. It was almost fascinating, and he’d slowed down enough that I kind of wanted to watch. Kind of.

I stabbed the thing that had once been a man straight through the eye as it reached toward me in a last-ditch effort to defy the inevitable. I gave the knife a little jiggle inside its skull to make sure everything was good and ruined, and then I tugged out my blade and wiped the dark red blood off on its tattered clothes. I gave it a nudge with my foot just to make sure, which was more of a habit than anything else, because zombies didn’t lie still, not when there were people to eat.

There had been some moral stuff going around recently, about how we shouldn’t kill zombies because they’re still people. I bet whoever thinks that rubbish has never seen one of these guys—one of the really old ones. This guy’s skin was like elephant hide, its remaining eye was like a gray marble embedded in a vaguely human skull, its teeth were oddly vivid white and had been whittled down to points, and its fingers were hardened into claws that would’ve ripped through my flesh as easily as my knife ripped through its gray hide. From this guy’s clothes, I’d say he could well be one of the original wave. The cloth was so damaged, it was hard to tell, but I’d never seen an outfit like it. Either way, it was old.

That healing rate.... I allowed myself a deep breath as delayed fear tangled with adrenaline. If there had been more than one of these guys, I’d have been seriously screwed.

The whole thing lasted a handful of minutes and, thanks to whoever had rid that guy of his tongue, had been mostly silent. I checked outside, but apparently, my guard-sheep weren’t quite as savvy as I’d thought. One looked up at me; the other ninety-nine were engrossed with whatever it was sheep think about. The dogs raised their heads, eyed me over the distance, and waited to see if I was going to give any more orders. I let them be and went back to the bell tower.

If I’d thought about it a bit more, I would’ve realized how stupid that was. Zombies didn’t survive locked in a room; they needed to eat regularly, especially ones that old, that healed that fast. Unfortunately my brain was all jacked up on adrenaline.

I tugged the door open the rest of the way.

Someone cursed.

The sound of it scraping across the stone floor could have been a whisper for all the difference it made. I stood there, framed in the doorway as flat light streamed through the gaping roof over my head, lighting up me and the six pairs of gray eyes that had turned toward the sudden brightness.

“You grecking moron.” Another human voice cut through the sudden gurgling of excited zombies.

All six of them wore the same unrecognizable clothes that the first one had.

I was thoroughly screwed.

I slammed the door shut again. It rasped against the floor and bounced off the hard-as-steel hand that had reached the frame first.