True to Captain Carpenter’s claim, the squadron reached the imposingly dull outer walls of Fort Newstead two days later. The lack of other dangerous encounters after the day of the big battle probably helped speed up their progress.
There had been the two groups of wandering Zombies they had come across, but these had run away before the squad could even get close enough to engage them. It had felt like the only glimmer of luck they’d had over the last few days. Of the injured soldiers, two more had fallen ill to the point that they’d had to be mercifully executed before they spread the plague to any of the others.
As Katherine and Oliver had helped some of the others with the graves they had dug near the scout outpost they were camping by that night, they had shuddered at the thought of how easily it could have been their own graves being dug. Oliver’s arms in particular, still bearing the scars from the last battle, had been trembling the whole time they were digging, and even a little while afterwards.
Nobody believed him when he tried to pass it off as a reaction to the increasingly cold weather.
The morale was understandably about as low as the temperature when they first caught sight of the fort. Where Fort Ridley had been built on the remains of a small fishing village, Fort Newstead was built on the ruins of a moderately sized town, and the much longer length of wall that covered it very effectively communicated the increase in magnitude.
“Look alive, soldiers, we’ve reached the fort!” Captain Masterton had yelled on sighting the walls, the slightly reduced verve in his voice the only indication that he too was feeling the effects of the squadron’s low morale.
For a fort that was apparently placed at a very important strategic location, it looked very… understated. Flair and flavour seemed to be concepts that hadn’t been able to breach those big, sturdy walls. And speaking of breaching those walls…
“Stay alert here, soldiers, some of these corpses may not be fully dead yet,” warned Carpenter as they rode closer to the fort’s entrance. On either side of them was heavily trampled ground that would have looked a lot muddier in warmer weather, only sparsely dotted by trees and the occasional patrolling Robot but very liberally coated with dead bodies. Even in the cold, the stench was launching an assault on their senses that was arguably just as deadly as if the corpses themselves were joining in the attack.
Only seconds after she spoke, a couple of the dead bodies shakily got up on sensing their company. Before they could so much as snarl, though, a short yet sharp shower of bullets decimated their heads.
Katherine imagined what someone with heightened senses would think of the smell – and then immediately regretted the thought, as the painful visual of Gloria’s face being blasted by the Zombie parked itself inside her mind.
“I was expecting something more… well, just more, I guess,” commented Lizbeth as they rode along the gently curving road.
“Forts aren’t really much in the way of architecture, are they?” said Katherine, looking on as a blast of energy took out a trio of awakening Zombies.
“That’s what I don’t get though,” said Lizbeth, “They’re basically smaller versions of castles, right? But castles look so beautiful most of the time, and these things look, well, so plain. They could try a little harder, couldn’t they?”
“I guess they couldn’t really focus on making it look good when they had to keep an eye out for Zombies all the time,” suggested Katherine, “Then again, I don’t know if castles were also built in the middle of war zones.”
“Probably not,” thought Lizbeth, her eyes drawn to a Robot punching a corpse that had begun to stir as the squadron rode by, “Or maybe they looked this dull at first, and then they were renovated to look better once the place was a little more hospitable.”
“It could be worse though,” said Katherine, “At least it just looks boring. It could have looked like an absolute eye-sore.”
“Haha, yes!” agreed Lizbeth, “One of those real marvels of architecture that make you wonder just what kind of drugs the creator was on when he designed the thing.”
“Lucky for us, those bizarre things probably take just as much effort to make as the more pleasant buildings,” said Katherine as the party were now at the gates, waiting for the drawbridge to descend and allow them in.
The small moat surrounding the fort was the worst offender yet in terms of its stench; Katherine’s eyes were almost tearing from the raw power of the fumes coming from there. There was barely enough water to cover the dead bodies in here, and as for the water itself – Katherine had to convince herself that it was water, because the alternative that it really looked like was not one she wanted to consciously think of. Or subconsciously, for that matter. A couple of Robots were trudging around here as well, and Katherine couldn’t help but feel sorry for them, those mechanical legs wading through wastes no sane person would ever dare approach.
Luckily, the drawbridge was brought down faster than the average drawbridge (but still not fast enough for those present who were not as well acquainted with drawbridges), and Eagle Squadron 8 rode inside without any delay and a great sense of relief.
Fort Newstead was more crowded than Katherine had expected. A large number of grim-faced soldiers were milling about inside the walls, practicing their sword work or tending to their equipment. The occasional group was playing cards or sharing ugly jokes over warm drinks. Not too many new faces though, and far too many faces that had experienced the brutality of the Crusades first-hand. The faces mostly greeted them warmly though; it was always good to see more survivors of the wretched wilds of Mortanny.
They first rode to the stables, a large stretch of what could have been a spacious garden in better days, where their remaining horses were all taken from their hands. With some relief, Katherine grew herself back to her normal height; the loose fit of her clothes in her shrunken state had bothered her a bit on the journey here.
“Sigh, I was only just getting the hang of little you, Big Sis,” joked Lizbeth, back to being the shorter of the two. Katherine patted her on the back affectionately in return.
From the stables, the march to the building that housed the headquarters was thankfully brief. A few of the other soldiers in the fort nodded politely as they passed; their restraint was probably due to a mix of military training and unfamiliarity. Their appreciation for the new arrivals still managed to sneak through their battle-worn faces though.
“Eagle Squadron 8, reporting for duty, Commander!” announced Captain Masterton as he and Captain Carpenter smartly saluted a more senior-looking woman with piercing green eyes.
“At ease, captains,” she said in a voice that would be croaking from overuse in a few years, but wasn’t going to give up its steelier tones that easily.
She spoke to the two captains first, asking details about their journey here, before turning to address the rest of the squadron.
“Welcome to Fort Newstead, Eagle Squadron 8! My name is Commander Mallory Hutchinson…”
“…we march to Baskemont in two days.”
If the captains assembled there had not had any military training, they would have drawn their collective breath very sharply at the announcement. Instead, they simply nodded very curtly and yet very enthusiastically.
“I’m glad there are no objections,” continued Commander Hutchinson, “and, I have to admit, a little curious that there are no questions.”
“But now that winter has passed, and our numbers are sufficiently large, the timing for this manoeuvre could not be better. I should hope that I don’t have to remind you of the importance of gaining control of Baskemont, so I won’t. This is the route we will take – “
Here, she indicated a line that had been very firmly drawn on a map that was laid down on the table that they were all assembled around.
“ – which should get us to the East gates of Baskemont with minimal interference, according to the latest scout reports. Falcon Squadron should reach the Southwest gates at roughly the same time. With both our armies invading the town at the same time, we stand the best chance we’ve had in a very long time of reclaiming Baskemont.”
She stared at the cross on the map that marked the location of Baskemont for some time, before concluding:
“If there are no further questions, then you have your orders, captains. I trust you will have your troops ready when the time comes to march out. This will be a glorious conquest for the Crusades, ladies and gentlemen!”
She had many more encouraging, even flowery statements to make. But this was not the audience that needed them. She kept them for a later date and a larger crowd.
“Eagle Squadron, dismissed!”
As Captain Masterton and Captain Carpenter walked over to the barracks where their unit had been set up, Masterton twiddled his moustache with some excitement.
“It’s about damn time we make a move on ol’ Baskemont. I’ve been waiting to hear the Commander give the order for months now!”
“We’ve only been here for three and a half months, Daniel,” teased Carpenter calmly, “Plus, did you really want to march out to Baskemont in the middle of winter?”
“We have had worse winters here, Carol,” said Daniel, “But fine, you have a point. Still, being cooped up in this hell-hole for weeks ‘n weeks of nothing but sleet and darkness has been trying, really trying, on my nerves. I’m a man of action, not a man of sitting on my tushy!”
“No arguments there, even I’ve been nearly going insane just staring out at the sky all day,” laughed Carol, a rare twinkle appearing in her intensely blue eyes, “And it’s not that much of a sky to look at on a daily basis, let alone for weeks.”
“Well, on the plus side, the squadron should be all healed up ‘n raring to go out there ‘n smash in some Zombie heads!” said Daniel as the two of them stepped out into the suddenly less unbearable chill of the day.
“That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to tell you but I keep forgetting,” said Carol, as though a reminder had popped up in her mind out of the blue, “I’m impressed with how little trouble you’ve had with Private Katherine. I was expecting to have to defuse many more situations between the two of you!”
“Private Katherine… that’s the sort-of Indian journalist woman with the ‘big’ abilities, isn’t she?” asked Daniel, making a pretense at being apathetic.
“Yes, that’s her, more or less,” said Carol with sarcastically narrowed eyes, playing along for now.
“Well,” began Daniel, being a little more serious, “She’s been a solid infantry-woman for the squadron since day... two? Three? Since the day I had to give her a piece of my mind for not doing her job right. And she’s great at looking out for the rest of the soldiers too, especially that little pack of hers with Private Kenneth ‘n the rest. Not too shabby for a soldier who’s only here to write a newspaper story!”
Daniel was happy with that take on the matter until he saw Carol’s raised eyebrow. The question it was asking was surprisingly clear.
“What, you expected me to have issues with her ‘cos she’s Indian? Carol, what kind of racist varmint do you take me for?” he asked, feigning shock.
“It doesn’t bother you even a little bit though?” asked Carol suspiciously, “Every Cowboy I know has stories of how some Indians did something terrible to someone in their family at some point in the past, present company included. It’s only natural to feel some residual hatred when you grow up with stories like that.”
“Well, it just so happens that some of us grow up enough to not let the past dictate how we see the present, Carol,” said Daniel, a little condescendingly even, “Although, to tell you true, I did have my doubts at first. But, like I said, she’s a good soldier, maybe even too good for the dirty work we have to do. And we’ve got enough troubles to deal with already without my stirring up some more for no good reason.”
“That’s good to hear, Daniel,” said Carol with a smile as they stood outside the building that housed the barracks for several of the squadrons, theirs included. “I’m guessing you want to do the honours?” she asked, gesturing towards the main door.
“You guessed right, Carol,” said Daniel heartily before walking into the building, Carol staying just a step behind and to his right.
“We’re marching out to Baskemont! Holy mackerels!” Anthony couldn’t contain himself.
“Finally, we’re going to do something major for the Crusades!” said Kenneth, who looked like he was constantly on the verge of zipping off to Baskemont all by himself.
“It was apparently one of the biggest hub cities in the region back in the days of Faeritalum,” said Oliver, sounding like an awestruck fanboy who had just met the creator of their favourite book series and gotten an autographed copy from him, “If we can take it and occupy it, this will be a huge step forward for the Crusades!”
“We’re finally going to leave this dull mess of brick and stone walls!” said Lizbeth, unable to stop bouncing on her bunk.
Katherine simply smiled.
Strangely, she just couldn’t find the right words for what she was feeling. Or maybe the words that were coming to mind weren’t the best ones to bring out in current company.
Still, it had been a really long winter – or at least it had felt like a really long one. The boredom of being cooped up inside the fort throughout the whole of winter had been almost as bad as the nights out in the open, exposed to the dangers of the wild. Only the occasional Zombie horde throwing itself at the walls were able to poke holes in the blanket of monotony that had draped Fort Newstead in the winter, even if the horde hadn’t been able to break through the fort’s impervious walls themselves.
“They couldn’t have picked a better time for the attack too,” Oliver was saying excitedly, “The Zombies probably won’t recover from the winter cold as quickly as we do, so we’ll have a huge tactical advantage when we go up against them!”
“Like we even need it,” said Anthony dismissively, “The whole of Eagle Squadron is marching on this one! Not just our unit, ALL of them!”
“And apparently we’ll be getting reinforcements from another fort!” said Kenneth, “This is going to be so epic! Argh, why can’t we just march out right now!”
“Just a guess here, but maybe the reinforcements need the extra days to get there at the same time that we do?” suggested Katherine.
“That’s what I was about to say!” said Oliver, “The strategy doesn’t work if one squadron starts invading the city before the other side gets there!”
“And I highly doubt you’d be interested in hovering outside the walls of Baskemont waiting for the signal to go in, what with all the Zombies roaming around there and the glorious weather,” teased Lizbeth.
“You know, I honestly wouldn’t mind the change of scenery,” argued Kenneth, “I’m starting to see these drab grey walls in my dreams now, and they’re still just as boring in there!”
“I actually agree with Kenneth on that one,” said Katherine, “I won’t miss being holed up in here the whole of winter at all.”
“Well now, the two Kenways finally agree on something!” joked Anthony, “This calls for a celebration!”
“We agree on a lot of things, Trigger,” said Kenneth suspiciously, “What are you on about?”
“Or at least, we don’t disagree on everything, if that’s what you’re hinting at,” added Katherine, her eyes narrowed.
“I concur,” said Oliver, “Hell, they’ve been more ‘together’ on everything in the last few months than my sister and I have been our entire lives.”
“Aww, Dodo,” said Katherine, patting him affectionately, “I’m sure you’re exaggerating but I’ll take the compliment!”
“I’m still all for having a celebration though!” said Lizbeth, who was somehow still bouncing ever so slightly, “Let’s go to the rec hall and see if the lute and drums are free!”
“Right on!” said Anthony, happy to finally have someone on his side in the conversation.
“We should probably grab Samuel though,” said Lizbeth, as they prepared to leave their quarters, “No offense, Trigger, but your lute playing is still pretty, um, basic.”
“That’s a great idea!” said Oliver, as Anthony huffed at the slight to his musical ability, “He won’t mind at all, I would think!”
“Let’s maybe not tell him why we’re celebrating though,” pondered Katherine, “If anyone isn’t all that happy about going back into battle, it would be Samuel.”
“Happy, maybe not, but the guy’s surely looking for any chance to get revenge?” asked Anthony as they walked, “I mean, I know I would be in his shoes.”
“Not everyone looks at things the way you do, Trigger,” said Katherine.
“And I agree with that,” said Kenneth with plenty of exaggeration, and the group laughed at Anthony’s look of annoyance.