It was a cold and lasting winter that clutched Livingston in its skeletal hands. Bleak expanses of ice and snow stretched out from the settlement’s angular walls. Lean trees — dead, for now — reached their frozen fingers to the blue-grey sky and the lifeless block of clouds drifting slowly, impassively onward like a mass of corpses down a frost-fringed river. A cutting gale would rise and howl before lying and dying again. All was motionless but for the scratching, creaking bending of the trees. No beasts left tracks in the still and biting snow. No birds sang in the frozen air, so crisp that a breath brought with it slicing ice and pain.
The people of Livingston hadn’t been ready.
They’d learned to fight monsters; they’d learned how to hunt, and to survive. They’d fallen, again and again, until only the strongest among them remained. But the people of Livingston hadn’t been ready. They hadn’t been ready to fight weather instead of monsters, to plan farms instead of battles — to survive winter, rather than apocalypse.
Mayor Dreggs’s wife, struck by the irony of the situation, had been seized with a laughter which halted only with the final sputterings of her heart. Many had died already in these deadly throes of winter, and the necessary arrangements had been made for each of them before burial — and then, when the ground was too solidly frozen and the survivors too weak, before burning. Mayor Dreggs himself set alight the pyre for his wife, and was ashamed to feel glad for its warmth.
The people of Livingston hadn’t been ready.
But on the seventh day of February — not that any had been able to track the movement of the calendar — the silence beyond the walls was broken by the groaning and the creaking of a carriage’s slow approach. Those people of the settlement with enough energy to spare gathered along the top of the wall, their attention arrested by the dark antique carriage and the team of corpses which pulled it on. Eight decaying bodies, tough and rotting ropes tied around their peeling forms, were pulling their vehicle wrought of wood and steel slowly, immutably onward, across the snow to Livingston.
Confusion, disgust, fear, hate, and hope churned within the walls of Livingston in response to the strange carriage’s crawling approach. Finally Mayor Dreggs emerged from the dark confines of his home like a ghost among the living, and called two of his most trusted to his side. The three departed alone. The heavy gate built into the town’s southern wall slid shut with a rough clanging behind them as their feet sank step after step into the deep and stinging snowfall.
The world was silent bar the quiet crunch of threefold footsteps in the snow, departing from the north, and the eightfold tread of roving copses and the creaking groans of their antiquated vehicle rising to meet them from the long-disused highway far to the south. The air smelt of the cold sharp clarity of an over-frozen world.
And the three lonely figures trudged forward through the snow.
As the two parties neared, it became clear at last who directed these servile dead: a man sat along the bench at the carriage’s peak, wrapped in layer upon layer of coats and cloth, hands covered by gloves and feet shod in a pair of heavy boots. A wide-brimmed hat turned downward hid what of the driver’s face was not masked already by the scarves heaped about his shoulders.
Without a word the corpses creaked and halted, and the carriage rolled and slowed to a crackling stillness several dozens of feet away. Dreggs and his cohorts, though impatient and yearning for their homes’ walled guard against the wind, had learned how to wait. It was a skill honed and perfected by those who survived — waiting, and knowing when not to. Gently a light dustfall of snow began to descend, swirling, from the sky, and still the figure atop the carriage remained obstinately motionless.
Richard Dreggs would not be the first to falter. He stood just as still, just as resolutely unwavering, even as the gusts cut through his bones and the stinging snowflakes settled on his brow, beard, and hands — one more exposed to the cold than the other, resting as it was on the revolver holstered by his side. Raphael and Maria sensed his resolve, he knew, and followed suit. The snow built slow, soft, gnawing walls around their boots; still they would not falter. The eight corpses swayed gently from side to side, faces locked firmly upon the three even without the eyes to see, heedless of the dangerous cold and of the railroad spikes jutting from their bodies, holding their reins in place; still, they did not recoil.
And then the doors on either side of the carriage creaked firmly, finally open.
Abruptly a great clamor of clank and clattering broke the silence of the scene as two imposing figures leaned slowly out, one from each door. Dense iron helms were proceeded by suits of armor, and two men dressed in the full regalia of medieval knights stepped heavily down the carriage’s sides, landing and sinking simultaneously through the ground’s thick cover of snow. Absent was any indication of firearms; in their stead was a broadsword slung across each knight’s back. Each took a single step back and became as inert as the figure still waiting over the restless dead.
A pair of pale hands reached out from the vehicle’s dark interior and gripped the door’s frames, and slowly the fourth and final stranger emerged.
With deliberate, slothlike movement he seemed to unfold from his vehicle and step almost daintily down the rungs affixed to its side. Old black dress shoes sank into the frost, and the man twisted to face the three. His head was masked by a veil of dark, loosely-woven fabric hanging from his round and broad-brimmed hat. He wore a suit and tie, inkblack stains against the pure white wall of snow stretching out behind him. Reaching one arm back into the carriage, he withdrew a briefcase of ancient, cracked leather, and the two knights began marching in tandem as though signaled. As of one mind they shut the carriage’s doors, then strode forward, past the businessman, past the corpses, and halted before the three representatives of Livingston. Their cumbersome frames dug deeply into the snow.
Dreggs, for his part, did not move. He watched these strange proceedings almost impassively, determined now to play his part through to the end. One armored knight stood only a few short feet from Raphael, who now could see the webwork of scrapes, cracks, and chips in the suit; the dull, bilious gleam of old metal forgotten and resurrected anew. The helmeted man towered over him and stared straight ahead, a statue which would stand there, resolute, until the end of time. The masked businessman followed close behind, sombre veil swinging softly with the arrhythmic lope of his stiff-gaited steps and carrying his thin, black briefcase in one hanging arm.
He stepped just ahead of the two knights, then fell still.
The man in the suit stood, straight-backed, and pulled a small, crumpled card from a pocket and held it aloft, arm stiffly outstretched.
Maria and Raphael looked to their Mayor.
Dreggs himself waited. These strangers had delayed long enough; they could stand a few moments more.
A quietly howling wind arose and crawled whisperingly along the snow-clutched ground. Dark dead branches scritch-scratched in the forlorn breeze as the snow persisted in its cruel and unrelenting downfall. The two lines of shambling corpses swayed behind the businessman and his guards, ice collecting in the hollows of their bodies. The driver’s dark hat was being slowly painted white. Finally the Mayor straightened, snowdrifts tumbling from his shoulders as he shifted, and then trudged forward to take the card from the businessman’s still hand—
And stopped short.
A new chill crept up Dreggs’s spine; yet he could not tear his eyes away from that terrible hand.
The creased and crumpled card was held between fingers of smooth, unblemished bone; some few muscles, tendons, dried and mummified, stood dark against that bleached and skeletal hand.
Richard Dreggs let out a shaky breath and watched his body’s warmth dissipate out into the cold, unforgiving air.
And finally saw, at last, that no such breath escaped the man before him.
C.S. Ramsey is a hobbyist writer inspired by a love for science-fiction and fantasy, and driven by a critical nature. “Herald of the Horde” was written after ten seasons of “The Walking Dead” convinced the author that it was time for something new.