As Kitch, Jamil, Marie, and Casey work to hold the castle, they train daily for the fight they know is coming. When it’s obvious a looming defeat, capture, and torture are approaching, Kitch implements his hidden contingency plan.
Haberfield and his brutal lieutenant, Juan, escape in the confusion. Juan decides at that moment, he will take the castle for himself. First, he must deal with Kitch, then Haberfield.
Meanwhile, Kitch has some life and death situations to deal with. To save Fatima and the children, Kitch must enter a castle filled with the infected, retrieve two horses, armour, and food. If he fails to do this within a given time, hostages will be killed.
Surviving clusters of humanity ruthlessly battle not only the infected, but they butcher each other for shelter, food, clean water, and a haven to call home. When you are a nineteen-year-old Tourette’s suffer in a dog-eat-dog environment, life and death are reduced to simple terms—kill or be consumed!
Kitch bunched his muscles. Perspiration broke out on his brow as he heaved on the makeshift barrier. The boom propelled the trapped, moaning infected toward the castle’s front gate, where Jamil waited with weapons drawn. Marie stood on the wall, ready to release her arrows. As soon as the infected sighted or smelled the living—Kitch was never certain which sense they used because of their milky-white eyes—they reacted violently.
Marie commenced dropping the infected with well-placed arrows to the forehead the moment she had a clear shot. An unsteady Jamil holding a boar spear acted as a backup. As Marie lowered her bow, Jamil carefully checked the bodies by prodding them with his spear point. He need not have bothered because they all knew Marie was an excellent archer by now. They were all dead.
After putting on bandannas to keep out the stink and decay, they dragged the bodies one at a time toward the centre of the road and set them on fire. Kitch and Casey led the horses into the castle grounds. One shied as flaming human fat crackled on the roasting infected. Gagging at the awful stink, Casey soon had it under control, uttering soothing words. Fatima greeted Casey warmly by the rear door and welcomed her to her new home—the castle. A delightful smell of food cooking permeated the air, and Casey was soon smiling, the sizzling infected seemingly forgotten. As Kitch and Casey unpacked the saddle bags, Marie informed them Fatima had taken over not only the small medical station but the kitchen and management of the castle’s daily routine.
Casey instructed Kitch, Marie, and Jamil on how to groom the horses and what was required in the way of water troughs, shelter, food supplies, and storage.
“We can provide horse stalls and other essentials, I think,” Kitch said, leading the trio to the rear of the castle. Along the western and northern walls stood a series of small timber structures used for storage of unwanted goods. Several were filled to the roof with bales of hay. Each structure’s opening faced a long, narrow strip of sandy land separated by a single length of joined timber supported by posts at three-yard intervals. At the end of which hung strange-looking wooden dummies attached to a swivel pole. The dummies had yard-long arms, to which were attached buckets suspended on wires.
“This area,” Kitch said, pointing as the others gathered around. “Was used on weekends and holidays to display an ancient sport called jousting. Two knights or warriors carrying lances would mount horses. For the amusement of a paying crowd, they charged each on horseback to see who could knock the other off.”
Casey took a quick look around. “There’s water troughs, feed bags, grains, and horse grooming implements, so that’s good.” After she wandered over to the forge, Casey returned with a serious look on her young face.
“What is it?” Kitch asked, fearful something was wrong, so much rested on the ability to use these huge animals for defence.
“One of the most important things about horses is their health. The forge is full of horseshoes that look as if they’ve been made in the traditional style. Gramps, Pa, and my brothers shoed our horses. I know how to do it, and I’ve tried. To be honest, I’m not strong enough. One of you will have to do it,” she said with finality. “I’ll show you how.”
Kitch shrugged. Like Jamil, he was prepared to step up to do whatever was required. It was that or face death or worse at Junior’s hands.
* * * *
Over the next five days, Casey worked them hard from well before dawn to long after dark at Kitch’s insistence. Each evening, she sent Jamil, Kitch, and Marie to shower before bed with aching thighs, blistered hands, and red-raw calves. Only to wake the following morning to repeat the process. She taught them how to groom, mount, and ride a horse without falling off. Casey instructed them to choose their horse by nature, feeding preferences, health checks, shoes, and saddlery gear maintenance. Her riding lessons commenced with simple tasks like mounting and dismounting, walking, trotting, and then falling back to a walk. It was evident to Casey from the outset that Jamil was scared of horses, Kitch was wary, and Marie loved them all.
By the end of the first week, Marie was the only student who took to riding with ease. She moved rhythmically in time with her mount and never seemed to be at odds with the motion. She was able to draw her bow and hit a target. Kitch and Jamil bobbed about like corks in stormy water, grimly hanging on for dear life.
During a morning meal break, Casey assessed Jamil and Kitch as they compared aches and the size of blisters. She knew the boys were trying hard, perhaps too hard. In her experience, that was why many older tourists complained of a rough ride—while their children and grandchildren experienced a different, more pleasurable experience. Accepting her mug of coffee, Casey studied the weary teenagers. In her previous life, Casey was permitted much latitude, training older folk and teenagers. Back then, that was for credits to support her family business. This was different. If these three failed, she faced the prospect of joining her family as an infected. That sent shivers of terror up her spine.
“You’re trying too hard,” she remarked, looking at Kitch and Jamil with a frank expression.
“We want to do this right,” Jamil responded with steam pouring off his wet head.
“Think about Marie when she rides. Can you see the difference between what she does and what you two do?”
The two boys shook their heads.
“Marie, would you canter toward the rear wall, turn, and walk parallel to the stables, then perform a short, sharp gallop, coming to a quick stop here?”