From the author: Corporal Hopkins just wants to go home. After many years serving with the Laird’s Men, he deserves his freedom. But while the long war that fractured New Britain may be over, Raiders in the Scottish forests still pose a deadly threat. Charged with dismantling a roving horde, Hopkins and his elite unit are outnumbered and woefully unprepared for the real horror that awaits them. From the shadowy depths of the great Loch Ness, an ancient evil is rising.
EXCERPT FROM ALL THE LAIRD'S MEN – Tabatha Wood, 2020
Content warning: Profanities. Descriptions of violence.
This is where it ends. In the darkness. Where the souls of the slain still linger in the dirt, and the black air echoes with screams. He can hear them in the shadows, hidden by the trees. Demons come to drag him down to Hell.
His chest feels hollow, his pulse too deep, booming like a bass drum inside his skull. He wonders if others can hear it too. If his own heart might give him away.
His stomach drops and twists in knots. Serpentine and sour. Every limb feels heavy, as hard as stone. His ragged nerves are raw. He should be used to this by now, but each new mission seems so much harder than the last.
He grips his weapon with shaking hands. His finger stutters on the trigger. He tells himself to ease off and relax before he shoots a friendly by mistake. The freezing air makes his chest feel tight. He can’t breathe. He feels smothered. Lightheaded.
The Sarge says something, low-voiced, at his shoulder. He struggles to hear the words. His ears feel full, like they’re stuffed with dirt. Perhaps they are. He’s been crawling through mud and sodden leaves for what has seemed like hours.
“Take them all down. Leave none alive.” Did the Sarge say that, or someone else? It doesn’t matter. He knows it’s time.
Time to nut up or shut up. Shit or get off the pot.
He takes a deep breath. Holds it steady.
Steady… Steady… And release.
They move as one, creeping like thieves under the cover of night. Kirkman crouches on his left, Thatcher to his right. The rest of the team is close behind. An elbow rams into the small of his back. No doubt one of the eager rookies, fresh to the fight and naive. Young soldiers with grooves cut into their helmets. Scratches that tally their shots. They wear them with pride, like badges of honour. Notches on a bedpost of slaughter.
Those days are far behind him. The war has gone on too long. He doesn’t bother to count his kills any more. There’s no space left to leave a mark.
There’s a flurry of movement up ahead, and he smells them before he sees them. A miasma of blood and sweat and faeces – a cocktail of disease and neglect. They move with a purpose, growling like dogs, a mass of snarling teeth and wild eyes. One after another they emerge from the nest, their numbers far exceeding what he’d expected. They gather and surge like a tidal wave, as they drench the platoon in death.
Screams of agony explode in his head – not his own, but the pained shrieks of his friends.
He’s trained for this. He knows what to do. Instinct takes over and he fires.
He rolls to the tree-line and lies flat to the ground. Concealed by the bracken, he disappears. He pulls the butt of his rifle tight to his shoulder. Peers through the scope on the gun. The swarm moves swiftly, engulfing the land. He draws an X on every target with the crosshairs.
He feels calm now. In complete and total control. He exhales and takes aim at the horde.
Their end is swift and sudden. He takes each one down with precision. Shot in the head or pierced through the heart, every bullet he fires finds its mark. Like marionettes with their strings cut through, their bodies split and purge. They sprawl in the mud, broken and torn. Their blood draws dark rivers in the dirt.
When it’s over, he surveys the carnage. Thatcher and Kirkman are long gone, as are the rest of the troops. Only he and the Sarge have survived the assault. Together, they pick up the pieces of their dead, rendered mute in the face of such loss.
Later still, although the memories still feel fresh in his mind, and the terror of that night haunts his dreams, he’s given a medal. A pat on the back.
“Well done, lad,” the Laird tells him with a wink, and lifts up his glass in a toast. “You and your unit did great, aye? We won!”
And he wonders why winning feels so wrong.
Hopkins jumped as the radio crackled. A sudden blast of static echoed by a droning hum. He picked up the receiver and put it to his ear. The Sergeant’s bark sliced through the mist.
“What’s your status out there, Corporal? Can you see anything?”
A sliver of moonlight split the clouds in half and shone on the loch below. Hopkins peered through his tactical binoculars and scanned the landscape for any movement. The night-vision lenses gave him a useful advantage. Allowed him to see through the dark.
“Negative, Sarge. Looks pretty clear. No sign of anyone at all.”
“We can't lose them, Corporal. Second Unit intel says there’s a fifty-strong horde on the move from Spean Bridge. If there are Raiders roaming around up here, we need to flush the bastards out before they start nesting. You copy?”
He sighed again. His breath plumed like smoke in the air. He knew all this. Drummed into him with fine precision since he’d first joined the ranks. “Copy, Sarge. If they’re here, we’ll find them. I guarantee it.”
“Make sure of it. I’ll see you and your team back at Urquhart at oh-six-hundred hours regardless.”
He thumbed the dial on the side of the radio and eased it into silence. A horde that size could be a serious problem, and one he wasn’t keen to take on. His team, although armed, were a reconnaissance unit. Too small to engage in hostile combat, their orders were to observe and report.
He rummaged in the pockets of his trousers until he found a battered tin of peppermints. He put one in his mouth, felt the menthol clear his head, and turned to the hulking shape of Allerton. Despite the soldier’s massive size, he had managed to keep well out of sight amongst the shadows of the tall Scots pines. The man moved with all the grace and silence of a lioness on the hunt. It made him a formidable assassin.
“You heard that, Private?” Hopkins said. The soldier nodded. “All right. Get your kit. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover.”
Allerton grunted his acknowledgement and disappeared into the forest. Hopkins sniffed and scratched his nose. The relentless cold made it red and sore. It dripped non-stop, day and night. The edge of his woollen balaclava was always damp. The skin around his nostrils cracked and raw.
He took a final look through the green-tinted lenses. Nothing to see but the mirrored surface of the water and the jagged silhouettes of the hills.
“Fucking joke, this,” he muttered. He stashed the binoculars back in their case and hefted his kit onto his back. He flinched as a heavy hand grabbed his shoulder. His own hands rushed to the weapon at his waist.
“You disrespecting the Sergeant’s orders there, Corporal?” Hopkins spun around to see the final member of his team. Private Jensen stepped back and leaned against a tree trunk. He stuck his little finger inside his ear and cleaned wax from the canal with his nail.
“What’s it to you, eh? Private.”
They glared at each other – eyes narrow, jaws set – before bursting into laughter. Hopkins had ten years on the younger soldier, and held a much higher rank. But after three years and seven missions together, such banter made their circumstances more tolerable.
“So, where to next, sir?” Jensen asked.
Hopkins shook his head. “Fucked if I know. It’s a wild goose chase, this. We know it. The Sarge knows it. Absolute waste of fucking time.”
Jensen sucked his teeth and nodded.
Hopkins continued, lost in his frustration. “There’s been zero Raider activity in these parts for nearly six months. They’re not going to suddenly all come flooding back, are they? I mean, there’s practically fuck all out here.”
“Can’t take the risk though, eh? The Big Man said they saw ‘em moving in the south. They’re bound to reach here eventually. Fucking roaches spread all over.”
Hopkins felt his cheek twitch involuntarily. The way it always did when he heard that word. Roaches.
The Raiders had gained their nickname for the ways they had behaved. In the early days, before the war fractured the country, the skirmishes over fertile land were still isolated and mostly contained. Teams of them had worked together, pillaging food stores owned by the Laird and trying to break through the borders. Like the foreign invaders he’d learned about in school, they had tried to take what wasn’t theirs and go where they did not belong. The Laird’s Men had brought order to all that.
Jensen always chose to use the derogatory term when referring to the Raiders. He’d say it alluded to their survival skills, but the truth was that he saw them only as vermin. Pests and parasites. A plague on the land. Not unfortunate victims of war. Hopkins didn’t like it, thought it cruel and unnecessary, but he knew there was little point rebuking him. The soldier’s prejudice was too deeply engrained.
Hopkins wrinkled his nose like he’d smelled something rotten. “I don’t buy it. Feels like a fucking goat rope to me. The hordes at the Border Wall have got them ‘higher up’ all spooked. They’ve got to be seen to be doing something.”
Jensen raised his eyebrows, unconvinced. “And if you’re wrong, sir? You know, the Laird’ll have a shit-fit if his land gets squatted on again.”
“Oh, fuck all that, Jensen! The war’s over. I want to go home, man. I want to see my family. Not spend all my time pissing about in the cold and wet looking for fucking ghosts.”
“Aye, me too. But look at it this way, sir, at least we’re not getting shot at any more.”
Hopkins sucked on his peppermint and looked up at the sky. The rolling clouds turned silver as they moved across the moon.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s something, I suppose.”
Jensen walked away towards the tight-knit trees and disappeared into the night. Hopkins listened. He heard nothing but the rustle of stirring leaves as the wind ran its fingers through the pines and the sound of the gentle water as it lapped against the shore. A fine drizzle made sparkles in the night air. A shower of frozen confetti. It could have been pretty, but he found it depressing. A reminder – as if he needed one – of the unforgiving weather. The relentless, bitter, freezing cold that gnawed upon his bones.
Fourteen days prior, he and his team had been content to make camp at Invergarry. Holding the fort for Laird Robert McConnolly and his band of merry bastards. He had started out with a team of twelve, but the others had gone north-west to the islands. Relocated on the Sarge’s orders. To another village with reports of a nest.
He didn’t mind. It would be easy to believe they were alone in the hills. His team had neither seen nor heard anything that had concerned them in days.
The long, desperate years of the War of New Britain were over, committed to the past. The rich were victorious, just like they’d expected, and the poor were as screwed as they’d always been. The Border Wall kept everyone in their place, and the Laird’s Men kept the country safe. Back to ‘business as usual’ for all in the Scottish Islands. At least for those who did as they were told.
Recon was boring but easy. Grunts like him helped keep the peace. A laughable phrase, Hopkins thought. His team sought out Raiders roaming the hills. Stragglers who still weren’t ready to admit defeat, or the wounded who had been caught in the crossfire. They protected the Laird’s lands and eliminated any threats. They kept order with the use of brute force.
Hopkins didn’t know how he really felt about it all. The blood-bonds of family could be easily torn, and his loyalty only went so far. If he hadn’t listened to his mother and joined the Laird’s Men, he might have ended up a Raider himself.
Hopkins moved through their makeshift camp, packing tools and equipment in neat layers in his bag. There wasn’t much for him to do. The soldiers travelled light and left little mess. Their meals were packets of protein powders, mixed with water and synthetic salt. Often, the heaviest part of their kit was the flexible hydration bladder that formed the bulk of their bag. A strong, rubber pouch that held up to three litres of liquid. They refilled them every time they reached a safe source. Out here, they couldn’t take any chances.
This life was not one he would have chosen. He’d planned to teach, before the whole world went to Hell. Joining the army was Carol-Anne’s dream, not his. As a kid, he couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag. Unlike his scrappy little sister. She was driven by a strong sense of doing what was right. A drive matched only by her temper. She’d always been willing to fight if she had to, especially for those who couldn’t.
But when the Raiders moved north, and ravaged the cities, he’d seen first-hand what damage they could do. He’d found a rage in him he hadn’t known existed, and his life had changed overnight.
Better this, he’d decided, than a life in the Border Lands, constantly on the run. He could be fighting for scraps to stay alive, hunted wherever he went. He’d made a promise and signed over his life in the hope for something better. He knew he’d had more choices than others, but he’d never know for sure if he’d made the right one.
He heard a splash in the distance and tore at the poppers on the binocular case. He crouched low to the ground. Trained his eyes in the direction of the noise. The water swirled and seethed with white foam, as a surge of droplets rained into the loch. Great circular ripples spread out like an echo, as if a great object had been blasted into it. He scanned the area. There was no further movement. He waited, keeping as quiet as possible, hoping that whatever it was might surface. Nothing showed. He wasn’t surprised.
The Sarge had told them to avoid the water.
“Don’t drink it, don’t wash with it, and definitely do not swim in it,” he’d said. “You’d do better to slice off one o’ your limbs and imbibe your own curdled blood, than touch even a drop from Loch Ness.”
Hopkins knew that any living creature that might have fallen into it would not be alive for much longer.
Another rustle behind him made him jump to his feet. He spun around, his knife already in his fist, but it was only Jensen and Allerton returning.
“Trouble?” Jensen asked, already reaching for his own weapon.
“Not sure,” Hopkins said. “I didn’t see anything, but I heard something down by the water. We’ll head down there and check it out.”
He pulled his balaclava down over his face and buckled the clips on his chest plate. Jensen and Allerton did the same.
“Could be an animal,” Jensen said. “There used to be wolves in the mountains. Or a wild pig?”
“Not here,” Allerton rumbled, his voice almost as impressive as his stature. “I heard Laird McCuntface put poison in all the water to kill off any Raiders who snuck in. Everything’s dead out here.”
Jensen sniggered. Hopkins slapped his arm.
“Careful who hears you, Private Allerton,” Hopkins said. “Calling the Laird those kinds of names can get you into a shite load of trouble.”
“I don’t care, sir. He can go fuck himself. Sideways if he likes. Besides, I’ve heard you call him worse.”
Hopkins grimaced. “Yeah, well. I can get away with it, can’t I? The bastard’s my uncle.”
Jensen sniggered again, caught the disdain in Hopkins’ eye and tried to hide it with a cough.
“So is it true?” Allerton asked.
“What? That he’s my uncle?”
“Nah, I know that. The whole squad knows that. Did he poison the water?”
Hopkins nodded. “Yeah. Every lake, river, pond and puddle. He’s a nasty piece of shite.” He turned his back on the men and squatted down to tighten the straps on his boots. He felt uncomfortable discussing McConnolly. He couldn’t fully condone many of the decisions the Laird had made, both during and after the War. All the millions of people he’d killed. The families he’d fractured or destroyed.
“He’s not even a real Laird, is he?” Allerton said. “Rumour is he bought the title with southern money, along with Scottish land.”
Hopkins didn’t meet his eye. “You shouldn’t listen to rumours, Private. They’re just lies dressed up nice to fool you. And lies, in our business, can cost lives. Truth is, McConnolly married my aunt well before I was born. I don’t know, much less care, how he got his title.”
He didn’t want to discuss it any further, but Jensen couldn’t take a hint. A ‘wind-up-merchant’ was what the young soldier called himself. Hopkins thought, ‘cocky, little southern gobshite’ was much closer to the truth.
“So, Corporal, how come you’re out here getting your bollocks busted doing this shite when you’re related to the Laird?”
Hopkins straightened up. Looked the other man in the eye. “You got a family, Private Jensen?”
“Get on well with them?”
Jensen screwed up his face. “Not really. Me ma’s a nasty old bag, and me dad’s out his nut most days. Joined the Men to get away from the useless fuckers.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Private. Some families can be complicated. But I do get on with mine, and God help me, I’d do anything for them. Especially to make sure they’re safe. I’m out here, ‘busting my balls’ as you say, because I made a promise to someone. And I never break my promises. Now, are you done?”
“Right, then. Let’s stop standing around here like we’re part of the scenery and do our fucking job.”
Jensen saluted and grinned at the corporal. “Sir! Yes, sir! Age before beauty, aye?”
Hopkins rolled his eyes and started walking.
Corporal Hopkins just wants to go home. After many years serving with the Laird’s Men, he deserves his freedom. But while the long war that fractured New Britain may be over, Raiders in the Scottish forests still pose a deadly threat. Charged with dismantling a roving horde, Hopkins and his elite unit are outnumbered and woefully unprepared for the real horror that awaits them. From the shadowy depths of the great Loch Ness, an ancient evil is rising.
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