Baron Cissbury has tracked a man who tried to barter his three young children across the South Downs. Clearly insane, he attacks the Baron’s horse which pins him to the ground where he endures several knife wounds, before five-year-old Anna – twin to Jude – brains her father with a rock. For all the details of the attempted rescue to this point, try following @BaronCissbury by accessing the old Twitter servers – you never know your luck!
Just the sight of my own blood made my hands shake. Feeling its sticky warmth brought back that childlike confusion you get when you first see your own blood – I hadn’t seen mine for years, thanks to the anxious attitude we all now have to breaking our own skin. Risk of infection – by whatever brought the dead back to monstrous animation – is far too horrifying a prospect to not take great, considered care in all aspects of our new lives.
The three kids – Ollie, three, and twins Anna and Jude, five – were pretty shaken. Ollie and Jude withdrew from me as I struggled to free my legs from under the dead weight of the horse – presumably their concept of men had been twisted by the father-figure their sister had just killed. Anna, however, was visibly pleased, and her positivity soon rubbed off onto the other two. She had cut her hands on the rock she’d brought down on the madman’s skull, so I pulled out my field kit and set about washing, disinfecting and then dressing her tiny, cold fingers.
When I was done, she took the pack and did the same to my knife wounds as best she could. I winced at the sting of disinfectant and Jude laughed, so I overplayed it and rolled about in the overgrown grass in mock agony. Soon they were all relaxed enough for me to assign tasks… I was far from relaxed. I had to get these little mites back to Cissbury Ring, and quick – for all I knew (and still know at the time of dictating to David down here in the quarantine pit), that nutter’s blade could have been dripping with the foul, oily pus of any number of stinkers. I could turn within the hour.
Jude was put on watch. He chose a fencepost and straddled it, one hand shielding his eyes from the watery spring sunlight. Ollie got to hold the field kit, as Anna tried to guess what to do with my raggedly sliced ear.
‘Just wash it out, I’ll pack a bit of gauze into it. Cover up the one on my arm as best you can though.’ She nodded.
Al would have to get his sewing kit out when I got back, I thought – the red leather of my ZPS was slashed and bloodied under the right-hand shoulder pad. It framed a deep cut. As the adrenaline slowly flushed out of my system a sharp throb started like drumming in my head, the cuts feeling like hot coals. When we were as done as we were going to be I called Jude down from his lookout post.
‘Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. We might not live through this.’ I said blankly. Ollie whimpered, as Anna put her arm round his shoulder.
‘The most important thing for all of you is to keep your eye on me. Not for my sake, you understand, but yours. If I faint or throw up, just run. Run as fast as you can. You see that hill?’ I said, pointing west. They all nodded mutely. ‘To the left of that is the old Cement Works camp. They said you all passed through there yesterday. That’s where we’re going. But if I’m sick or if I pass out, you all run to find the people who live there. They’ll help you. But don’t look back. Understand?’
At the Cement Works we’d be only half-way home, but safe. I’d be able to borrow a horse, maybe a cart too. We had six miles or so ahead of us, with me dazed and unsteady, and the track certainly not in a straight line. But I know the routes round that section of the South Downs really well. Some of our journey back to Cissbury Ring would take in portions of the original chalky tracks my wife Lou, wingman Al, and I took that stinking hot summer day a number of years ago when the zombie infection reached its tipping-point
Even so, with no horse we were especially vulnerable. I retrieved what I could reasonably carry from my fallen horse’s saddlebags – my longbow is always over my shoulder, but I had two long-handled axes, as well as water and a few bits like my battered O.S. map and the field kit, now neatly packed away. Jude begged to hold one of the axes but I knew it would slow him down so I slung them both in an ‘X’ across my back. He was sulking, but I noted his sister digging him in the ribs and glowering at him.
When we turned to leave Ollie seemed genuinely torn between coming with us to safety and staying with the man who’d tried to sell him – his cracked skull still leeching crimson into the bone-white chalk below the undergrowth which cradled him.
Anna grasped him firmly by his little hand, kissed him, and began to walk. He followed, slowly at first, until he tore his gaze from the crumple of dusty blood-soaked rags. Soon he was almost skipping through the grass with his sister, and I even heard him make a few inquisitive noises about some of the sights and sounds which greeted us, as if experiencing them for the first time.
We had no time to dawdle, though, and it soon became apparent why. We’d been making our way north, up to the old flint barn and ancient burial ground called Skeleton Hovel, once nestled in the safety of the northernmost tip of the golf course but now steeped once more in the heady threat of death. It was the way I’d came in, and would lead us back onto the well-trodden path of Monarchs Way and back to Cissbury Ring via the old Cement Works. That way I could get my wounds dressed properly. Bless her, she did try. The residents of the Cement Works camp aren’t too friendly, but are sensible and fair.
At the flint barn I stopped still, held my hand out to silence the little ones. Why hadn’t I brought my beagle Floyd with me? I could smell eggs. I blew air through my nose, emptying my nasal cavities, then slowly drew in. Not to breathe, but to sample. Eggs again. Sulphur. Stinkers.
‘We have to move. Now’. I reached over my shoulder, gave Jude one of the axes and his sister the other. I drew my bow. ‘We keep walking. Make a square, and keep looking out from your corner.’ What I thought they would possible be able do with the axes I didn’t know, but it freed up some weight for me. As my blood pumped afresh, my wounds opened up again. I had no idea if the zombies can smell blood like sharks, but I do know they’re drawn to the scent of human activity – campfires, cooking, shit.
‘There!’ cried sharp-eyed Jude. An unmistakeable silhouette stood by the barn shuffling, hunched – its own nose twitching in the air. It turned to face us as I loaded a shaft into my longbow.
‘Just keep walking.’ I watched as the figure lurched towards us, and another dusty white face appeared in the shadows of the outbuilding. ‘We have to get past them. Up there.’ I pointed to a grassy bank to one side and drew my bow. There were four now, we had disturbed a real nest of them. More appeared, teeth bared and legs unsteady. I launched.
Arrows make a distinct sound, not unlike an owl in flight cutting through the silence of night. It is a sound I have come to love; to cherish even – a sound that has saved my life more than once.
‘Coo-ool!’ Jude spluttered, as the shaft hit home, cleaving a bowl of softened skull away from the stinker’s leathery head, which landed and traced a decreasing circle in the dust. The zombie fell as I reloaded. Jude started towards them, trying to raise the heavy axe as best he could.
‘No!’ I yelled. ‘We keep as far away as possible. Get behind me.’ He stopped dead and turned back to us, reacting instinctively to the tone in my voice.
I felled another two, reloading, aiming and firing in a heartbeat. That’s the key – keep your distance. But when Anna lost her footing on the steep ridge and slid down towards the grassy hollow in which the flint barn sat, I had to move in closer. Her eyes met mine as she clutched desperately at clumps of weeds – her axe bounced down the slope with her, its gunmetal blade flashing. I thought of my old friend Vaughan.
With no time to tell Jude and Ollie to stay put, I launched down the slope. Overextending to grab Anna’s axe halfway down sent me off balance, and I ended up tumbling onto the chalk track in front of the ancient flint building. There were three almost on top of me, and I couldn’t see Anna. My hands closed tightly around the curved wooden handle of the axe and I swung upwards. It’s easy in the heat of battle to revert to pre-zombie ways of combat, of fighting other thinking beings. This wild upward lunge was a classic example: a way of getting other sentient beings to move away from the blade’s arc to give you a chance to get to your feet. But there is no thought behind the actions of these stinking creatures. No logic. If they can indeed see, then they weren’t looking at the axe, or the danger posed by the blade. They were looking at my skin, smelling my flesh, almost tasting my blood as it flowed freely from my fresh knife wounds.
Two of the fuckers were more than an axe-length away from me as I swung, but I caught the other one on the arm which severed almost completely at the elbow. I stood. The closest – with one arm flapping uselessly, the other flailing towards me – caught my first properly-considered blow. I sank the axe head into his neck, at a downward angle. It obviously severed something useful, as all motion stopped instantly.
I eyed up the other two zombies, now able to see Anna on her feet and trying to scrabble back up the slope to her siblings. One of them had been a woman, two great empty sacks of pustule-ridden flesh stuck by decay to her swollen, mouldering belly. ‘They used to be tits’, I thought to myself (why does my brain sidetrack me at such ridiculously important points, I wondered), before taking a more horizontal swing and cleaving her fatty head from her shoulders.
The last one – a wiry man, full of power – gnashed and snapped at me. He was several steps away. In an instant I had plotted his course; turned on my heel to check Anna’s progress up the slope; raised the axe; turned full-circle to face him again and delivered the blow. It caught him square in his opened mouth, with twice the force from a normal blow without that fancy roundhouse action.
It was a neat cut, straight through his head. Everything from his top set of teeth upwards detached with the clean ‘ting’ sound of the axe blade; everything from his bottom jaw downwards fell to the ground, hands frozen in a last-ditch attempt to drag me towards him. I was in my stride now, the children safe as they’d ever be at the top of the slope. I worked through the next two stinkers, even kicked the door of the barn open, searching in the gloom, my eyes fighting for light. There were two or three seemingly matted into the rags and other festering debris on the barn floor. Wet yet crispy sounds accompanied their attempts to get towards my own fresh smells, turning my stomach. Their aroma proved far too much and I retreated, gagging.
We had no time to re-dress my now fully open knife wounds. I could only hope that no infected matter – gristle, pus, cartilage – had got in. I got Anna to sluice out the cuts with the last of the neat disinfectant; no time for wincing or playing games now.
I hauled little Ollie onto my back and told him to wrap himself up in the leather straps of my longbow quiver. He was as light as a feather anyway. The five-year-old twins I instructed to run, and run they did. We must have covered two miles of Monarchs Way in ten minutes, and eventually it was me that had to get them to slow down. I was feeling weak. Jude eyed me up.
‘Can I take your head off if you turn into one?’ he grinned. Anna thumped him.
‘No,’ I said, angrily. ‘I told you to run.’ I took another rasping breath and looked at him standing there all crestfallen. I softened.
‘Okay then – but only if you can do it safely. Jude? I mean it – only if you can do it safely. You’ll easily outrun me; you’ve both got a turn of speed on you. But do it when I’m unconscious. If I do turn, the first sign is the black vomit. I’ll fall asleep soon after that. Do it then. You understand?’
He nodded. Good lad. When I had caught my breath, on that hilltop halfway to safety, I rose to my feet. I allowed myself to relax a little, to enjoy the oxygen of a new spring and to drink in the sweet fresh air.
Pretty soon we were off again along Monarchs Way. There’s an old encampment set up by some ill-fated original survivors all those years ago, on Thundersbarrow Hill. It makes an excellent look-out point and enabled us to have an hour’s rest before heading along the final stretch to the old Cement Works camp. Jude wanted me to show him how to start a campfire properly but I said as it wasn’t too cold, the risk of drawing even more of the undead to our activities outweighed the benefits. He was glum, naturally, but I spent the rest of the time talking to them about our camp, about the other children on Cissbury Ring, of the schoolhouse we had built, and describing our campcraft and combat lessons. He soon perked up, and Anna was full of questions.
‘Are you a real Baron?’ she asked as I hauled myself to my feet. I chuckled, and grasped the top of her head like a funfair prize-grabbing machine. She giggled as we prepared for the trek to the first friendly and inhabited camp on our route home. Ollie was asleep on my back, but had bound himself so well into the straps he wasn’t going anywhere.
After another half-hour of walking, talking and keeping our eyes very peeled indeed we trudged into the Cement Works camp, and the children played with the guard dogs as I spoke to Douglas, the camp leader. He begrudgingly sorted us out with a horse and cart, which I vowed to return by the week’s end along with payment in the form of one of my ten-week-old Cissbury beagle pups. It wasn’t a fair trade, but I wasn’t in the mood to barter and he knew it. Naturally I’d make sure I gave him the laziest and hungriest beagle pup of them all though – it’s quite hard to get one over on Baron Cissbury.
The route back to Cissbury Ring was easily navigated by the horses with no instruction from me, but I couldn’t allow myself any sleep. I always keep my longbow ready to go when I don’t actually have to do any riding. Dawn and Dal met us about a mile from camp, as David the quartermaster had organised a lookout rota facing east. Then I put the kids into Lou’s hands, waved away a kiss, and climbed into one of the quarantine pits. Then someone brought me a cup of tea. Then Dawn dressed my wounds properly. Okay David, that’s the gist of it now will you kindly fuck off and let me get some sleep?
Okay, I wasn’t supposed to write that, but I’ll leave it in for posterity. I’ll let the man sleep now and I’ll patch into the Baron’s weblog and post this up as soon as I can. I am a quick typer on this thing. Hello everyone by the way! (It’s David)