He crouched amid the bones and filth of his lair, because that was what he did when the Feeder wasn’t bringing him food. He scratched absently at the wall, making random patterns in the hard-packed earth with his long claw-like nails. He hoped the Feeder would come soon. It was always good when the Feeder came. Back in the old days, when he was very small the Feeder had come himself with food. Sweet food from the trees. Then as he had had gotten older, and bigger the Feeder had brought him meat. It had been dead meat first. Small things. Little birds. A rodent or two. Then the Feeder had moved on to bigger things. Live things, though they were always tied up or asleep so that he would not be harmed when he fed.
He stopped scratching the wall and looked towards the brightness outside. When would the Feeder come? How long had it been since his last meal? He had no idea. He looked at his hands. One. He lifted a single finger. But he did not know what came next and gave up. He sat in here and he ate what the Feeder gave him. That was all he did. All he needed to do. Sometimes the Feeder brought him things he could play with before he ate them. His stomach rumbled with hunger.
. . .
“As you can see Bhattar, you should stick to fighting and strategy and leave negotiations and business to me.”
Enki Shul heard his leader release an exasperated sigh.
“Just as you say Master Elan.”
Enki marveled Amon’s patience. In his place he probably would have throttled the smug merchant by now. For weeks he and the rest of the men hired to guard Elan Kazak and his caravan had had to endure listening to the heated arguments between their leader and their patron. Amon had warned over and over of the inadvisability of trying to establish trade with the Chaaltecs. They were savage barbarians, he had said, and they possessed a long-held contempt of outlanders. Elan had remained stubborn, convinced that his own powers of persuasion, and gold bribes, would be more than a match for old hatreds. So far at least, he had proved right.
Enki shifted on his seat and looked around at the courtyard, at the feast that had been laid out in their honor, and the fine gold ornaments that most of the Chaaltec nobles in attendance were wearing, courtesy of Elan Kazak. He actually noticed several pairs of men comparing armbands and collars, each admiring the others enviously. Even more envious glances were directed at him and the other mercenaries, or rather, at their steel weapons and armor. The Chaaltec city lord had actually tried to strike a deal for them. Good iron was rare this far south.
“He says he will give twice the agreed amount of pelts.”
“Tell him we are not inclined.” Amon had said flatly.
The merchant had been surprised. “You are aware that this bargain will mean double shares for all? That’s twice the payment I agreed to pay you.”
“I can count merchant.” The other had said flatly. “And for what you’re paying, my men and I agreed to fight who you tell us to fight and kill who you tell us to kill. Nowhere in the bargain did we agree to surrender our weapons to any man. Gold is a fine thing, but worthless if a man lacks the steel to hold it.”
He had said this in a tone that brooked no argument, and for once, Elan dropped the issue.
Enki chewed thoughtfully on a mouthful of some tender fowl as he recalled the discussion, one hand instinctively gripping the haft of his war axe. Many of his comrades had already sampled the potent native liquors offered by slender serving girls, but he chose to remain sober. He preferred having his wits about him in a foreign place. Besides, sobriety allowed him a better appreciation of the girls themselves. It had been some months since his last encounter with a woman. He was in fact in the process of exchanging smiles a particularly handsome specimen, when there was a sudden commotion at the other end of the courtyard.
A warrior in bloodied leather armor staggered onto the scene, escorted by two of the lord’s guardsmen. Blood caked upon his left arm, which hung limply by his side. The Chaaltec lord shouted impatiently and the warrior was brought before him. The man was clearly weak from loss of blood and exertion but he managed the strength to deliver his message.
“What is he saying?” Enki heard Amon ask their client.
Elan pursed his lips. “From what I can gather, this man was an escort for some important personage. From his wound there must have been an attack, and whomever he was charged to protect was taken by those who waylaid them.”
The warrior continued to speak, and the Chaaltec lord’s face grew dark with passion. At last the former finished and slumped onto his knees, steadying himself with his good hand. The lord barked an order and one of his attendants gave into his hands an ornately carved war club. The lord sprang to his feet and brained the unfortunate messenger with a savage blow. The man crumpled to the ground in a crimson heap.
Before anyone could react to this outburst, the lord turned to Elan and spoke to him harshly and rapidly. Enki noted that the man made several gestures at himself, Amon and the other Samarian mercenaries. Elan went pale at the words.
“Well?” Asked Amon.
Elan paused to moisten his lips before translating. “His lordship, Macuhuape, demands the return of his daughter before any further negotiations.”
“Daughter?” Amon asked.
Elan conversed with the lord some more before replying. “It seems that the lord’s daughter was being escorted to the capital to be wed to a Chaaltec prince. Her escort was waylaid a days march from this city and she was carried off by the attackers.”
“That gives them over two day’s lead on us. Even if she’s still alive now we’d never be able to find her in time.”
“His lordship will provide you with a tracker so that you may pursue them. If she is in fact dead, he will be satisfied with the heads of her murderers.”
“In that case I want a pay raise. Half again our original agreement.”
“Were hired to ensure your safety and that of your caravan. This goes beyond that contract.”
Elan’s thin lips writhed briefly in anger, then he sighed.
“Only if you succeed in bringing her back alive.”
“Agreed. Tell his lordship we leave at dawn.”
. . .
He picked the last scraps of meat from the deer the Feeder had brought him and chewed slowly. Deer was good, but often stringy and tough. He much preferred the meat of the Feeder’s own kind. That was soft and tender. Usually. He wondered if the Feeder would taste as good as the others that were given to him to eat. But if he ate the Feeder, did that mean no more food would come? He tried to think about that, but it was too difficult.
He had no memory beyond the Feeder finding him abandoned in the forest. The Feeder had always been there. Always bringing him food. Always protecting him from others until he grew big. Then the others had stopped trying to hurt him and the Feeder. Then it was the others who had feared him. If not for the Feeder. . . To hard again. He gave up. He hoped the Feeder would bring him something soon.
. . .
“Enki saddle your horse, I want you with us.”
Enki blinked up at his leader in the early morning light. “Sir?”
“Don’t lay there like a dead ox lad, go to.”
This time Enki hid his surprise and obeyed. If Amon wanted his youngest and newest subordinate to accompany him on a dangerous assignment, it was none of his business. Of the four-dozen men in Amon’s company, half their number would stay behind to guard Elan and the other merchants. The rest would go with him to try and rescue the Chaaltec girl. Enki had to smile at that. It was as if they were a company of knights riding forth in an old wives tale.
Before mounting his horse, Enki reached into his tunic and removed a small wooden amulet, carved into the image of a bull-headed man.
“Aldeboth, patron of Hammaras, guardian of my home, lend your protection to a son who has always honored you. Preserve me in this foreign land and I will offer two lambs in your name.”
So saying, Enki kissed the amulet, placed it back inside his tunic and mounted. He noticed that many of the others were doing the same, whether they honored Aldeboth, as he did, the winged goddess Tan-lil of Shupra, or any of the other guardian gods; each one, the protector of a Samarian city-state. Looking at the impenetrable jungle waiting to receive them, Enki hoped at least one of them was listening.
. . .
He awoke when the drums began. The low rumble from outside his lair was soon joined by the rumbling of his stomach. Hunger assailed him fiercely and his tongue moved out to lick his lips. The drums meant that the Feeder had brought him his favorite food. For some reason the Feeder did not bring the food to him whenever this happened. He always had to go outside to eat, where the Feeder and others could see him. He moved to the entrance of his lair and waited. The Feeder would let him know when he could come out and eat.
A thicket stood between the entrance of his lair and the feeding place, but moving a little ways through the trees he could make it out clearly. He saw the Feeder, the stone and what lay upon it. The rumbling in his stomach briefly quieted as he felt a stirring in his loins. The Feeder was being especially good today.
. . .
With the guide on one of their spare horses, Amon’s band left the settlement at speed. The marriage party had been traveling on foot, horses being very uncommon this far south. This offered some hope that they might be able to find the girl and save her. They actually smelled the rotting corpses long before they managed to find the remains. The sweltering heat had already begun its work on the bodies. Before sundown the guide managed to pick up the trail of the raiders, leading west. After that followed days of stifling heat and tortuous insects along a twisting route that was little more than a deer trail. Then, on the fourth day, they heard the drums.
The guide raised his hand in a gesture enjoining silence and the mercenaries’ swift pace now slowed to a crawl. As they advanced Enki felt a new trickle of nervousness run through him. Samaria was a land of open plains and wide valleys where danger was easy to see. Here, every bush, every shadow could hide a lurking enemy. As they moved closer the pounding of drums drowned out even the buzzing whine of the insects. Then small shafts of light pierced the leafy gloom and the noise grew even louder. It had to be.
Advancing carefully, weapons at the ready, the Samarians and their guide soon looked upon a scene of barbaric festivity. Several dozen half naked figures danced in an open grassy space formed by the fall of a forest giant. In the center stood a roughly pyramidal pile of crumbly moss-covered stone surmounted by what was obviously an altar. Enki gripped the haft of his axe and looked to his leader for instructions. Amon caught his eye and shook his head slightly.
Enki made no response but simply turned back in time to see one of the figures in the clearing mount the ruins of the altar, carrying a limp figure in his arms. It was a woman, mahogany skinned and with raven hair falling loosely about her bare shoulders. On Amon’s other side, the Chaaltec guide stiffened at the sight and almost rose, only to be restrained by the mercenary’s hand. Enki felt his own hands grip the axe haft again as all about him a new tension ran through the two-dozen men hidden in the undergrowth.
The man carrying the girl laid her upon the altar, a great roughhewn slab of gray rock covered in dark stains. The girl herself was unbound, yet she did not resist. Her head lolled in a way that suggested drugging by her captors. The man turned away from the crowd and raised his arms. In color, and feature, he and his followers was not unlike the Chaaltecs, but his face was painted with white and yellow streaks and his only garment was a multi-colored cloak of feathers, cunningly woven together.
“Xictecs.” Enki heard the guide mutter to Amon, and there was no mistaking the contemptuous hatred in his voice. The Chaaltecs were but one of many tribes inhabiting the jungles of the Green Belt. They were the strongest though, and their dominion over the others was maintained by the presence of their armies and fortified towns. This rule was bitterly resented by the other peoples, which provided some possible motivation for the kidnapping.
The drums and chanting fell silent and the Xictec leader began to speak in a loud, sonorous voice that echoed oddly in the relative silence of the clearing. Enki saw the guide’s face grow pale as the words rang out.
“What is he saying?” Amon whispered.
Enki did not hear what the guide said in response. No sooner had the Xictec leader finished speaking that there was the sound of cracking branches. The Xictecs immediately prostrated themselves before the altar. Hidden in the undergrowth Enki felt the sweat on his brow turning cold. From the noises something big was approaching; something that didn’t take care, or had no need, to employ stealth.
The vegetation on the other side of the altar waved violently and a massive shape emerged into the light.
“Gods and devils.” Enki swore under his breath.
“Shh!” Amon hissed, cutting off a stream of whispered oaths from the others. Fortunately neither the Xictecs nor the apparition seemed to hear. It looked human in shape and aspect, but would have stood head and shoulders above the tallest man. Then the being thrust its head, dog-like, towards the unconscious victim and Enki felt bile in his throat. He saw the malformed head, the flat, reptilian nostrils and the jutting prognathous jaw. From what dark madness had such a thing been spawned? The Xictecs were utterly still, not even daring to look up at the being they worshipped.
“Bows.” Amon whispered.
Half of the mercenaries put down their hand weapons and silently nocked arrows to strings. Enki crouched low, waiting for the signal. The monstrosity seemed to regard the sacrifice before it with an odd curiosity. Then it reached out a hand towards its victim. That hand was as monstrous as its face, with long curving nails that could have been talons.
The bows twanged and the arrows flew across the clearing, over the heads of the prostrate Xictecs. Four went wide, one struck the creature’s arm, and the rest feathered themselves in its torso. A single distorted cry, and the monster fell backwards to the earth.
At the same moment Enki and the rest charged out and began laying into the prostrate Xictecs. A few managed to snatch up clubs and spears to defend themselves but steel and chainmail prevailed against naked flesh and wood. Enki hacked through the shoulder of a Xictec woman and leapt towards the leader, axe raised. Fast as he was however, the Chaaltec guide was faster. Driven by fury and hate, the guide fell upon his victim and stabbed his spear repeatedly into the enemy’s body. The Xictec bawled with agonized terror as he flailed about in a futile attempt to defend himself. The guide’s triumph was short-lived however. He was still grinning vindictively as one of the Xictecs caved in his skull with a war club. Enki beheaded the slayer with a swing of his axe. Then he kicked another charging Xictec in the stomach, knocking him to the ground where he was finished off by another blow. Enki looked around for fresh victims, only to find that there were none left.
The massacre had been brief. With their leader and their god dead, the few Xictecs able to break away, fled into the undergrowth. They left behind a scene of bloody shambles. Some of the mercenaries had been wounded but they would live. The Chaaltec guide had been their only casualty. In contrast, nearly three quarters of the Xictecs had met their end in that clearing. Enki, the blood still thrumming in his ears felt disoriented as he looked upon the scene of slaughter. Was it really possible for there to be so many dead in such a short space of time?
“Aruk! Kahl-men! Get the girl. I want us gone long before those savages recover their nerve. Enki! Make sure that thing is dead. I don’t want any demon spawn chasing after us.”
Amon’s words had a way of penetrating even the thickest of fogs. Enki felt himself straighten instinctively. While the other two lifted the girl carefully from the dark altar, he walked around to stare at the monster’s corpse. Enki noted the blood that had ceased trickling from around the arrow wounds and the clouding of the dead eyes, and felt a wave of relief. So hideous and unnatural was the being’s aspect that he had been surprised when mortal steel had actually succeeded in felling the monster. Still, best not to take chances. One carefully aimed swing of his axe split the misshapen skull. Blood and brains oozed out to soak into the forest floor. Enki wiped the blade on his tunic and walked away without another thought.
It would be a long march back to the fort town, especially with the guide dead, but armored soldiers are as good at leaving a trail as they are poor at finding one. All they had to do was retrace their steps. The girl was still breathing which meant they were guaranteed the pay raise Elan had promised. Already some of the others were talking about what they would do with the extra money. Enki’s mind however, was occupied by thoughts of that serving girl from the banquet. The memory brought a smile to his lips. She had seemed friendly enough to a mere soldier of fortune. If she were like most women he’d met, she would be even more amenable to the company of a hero.
Robert Webb © 2015
Nim Mong-geun wished he was a young man again as he puffed after his charge across the parade ground of Chu-sang Fortress.
“My Lady, please wait!”
“Your too slow Mong-geun! I didn’t push the horses last night just to be slowed down now.”
The reckless smile that Gyuk Lee-hwa flashed over her shoulder sent the aging soldier back to memories of a time without gray in his hair. Then it had been her royal father who had rushed ahead of him, often into lethal danger with that same cheerful recklessness.
“The enemy isn’t going to run away my Lady.” Mong-geun panted. “They’ve come to invade, not retreat.”
His words fell upon deaf ears as Lee-hwa half ran up the steps to the parapet, oblivious to looks of shock this won her from the soldiers on duty. Visiting royalty was unusual enough, but a royal woman in armor? Her hair cut short and tied in a soldier’s topknot? Mong-geun felt sorry for them.
Finally the old soldier mounted the wall and moved to join his charge. Barely noticing the salutes of the soldiers who saw the ornate shield of the King’s Favored that he carried. Mong-geun stood beside Lee-hwa and stared down upon the open plain, and the distant army that had come to conquer them. This was nothing new for the Hanguuli people. If it wasn’t the armies of the arrogant Wei emperors attacking them from the south, as now, it was Yamatai pirates raiding the coasts. If not the Yamatai, it was the thrice damned, goat fucking barbarians from the steppes to the north.
Mong-geun observed the enemy encampment with a practiced eye. The huge banners of the imperial army flapped vigorously in the morning breeze just near enough to make out their insignias. From the walls, the sentries that guarded the camp looked like ants.
Lee-hwa whistled in a most un-ladylike fashion. “Five divisions. Emperor Wurong is certainly determined to live up to his regnal name.”
“Well, if he really want’s his ‘martial glory’ he’d have better luck slaughtering soft-bellied Dravidhans.” Mong-geun replied. “His ancestors should have taught him what it means to fight us.”
Chu-sang Fortress, sat at the mouth of a wide valley between mountains, marked the southernmost extent of the Isthmus of Nimkwang. Bounded to east and west by the waters of the Falernian and Secuban Seas, the Isthmus was one of the few places where one could cross on foot. Naturally this offered a great advantage to those who could control it. As a result, countless rulers had sought to conquer the Isthmus. Perpetual invasions into the rugged hills of their homeland had bred the Hanguuli into a stern indomitable race. Countless armies had wasted themselves before the walls of Chu-sang and there was not a single un-blooded warrior who defended them this day.
“Look well men. The emperor has sent us ants to squash.”
Both Mong-geun and his charge turned to see the fortress commander striding towards them along the parapet. The men in earshot chuckled at his remark. Rii Sung-jae, blunt, squat and broad-shouldered kept his face impassive as he approached his esteemed guests. Even so Mong-geun sensed his resentment and couldn’t help a twinge of sympathy for the man. Sung-jae already had enough concerns in preparing to resist the coming invasion without the sudden late night arrival of one of the king’s Favored and a princess of seventeen determined to fight beside his men. She had actually said that to his face the previous night.
“Lord Nim, Princess.” The commander said, bowing. “I hope your night was restful, we had not time for appropriate furnishings.”
“Your hospitality was most generous Commander Rii, you need not concern yourself.”
Mong-geun felt a smile tug at his lips at Lee-hwa’s attempt at a decorous response. Despite the best efforts of the royal tutors her speech still tended towards abruptness. The child who had rushed eagerly to see the enemy now tried to conceal herself behind courtly manners. His Majesty had been much the same.
“When do you think the enemy shall attack us?”
“Hard to say your highness. It depends on how quickly they marched to get here. If their commander has any sense, he will let them rest for a day or more to recover.”
Which makes this an ideal time to launch a surprise attack. Mong-geun thought. Unless the enemy sentries are especially vigilant it would be easy to slip a force around their flank. Any commander worth his sword would jump at such a chance.
Then Mong-geun saw the look in the other’s eyes and understood. Unfortunately Rii Sung-jae was destined to have his hopes dashed that morning.
“Have you sent anyone to scout the enemy camp?”
“Not yet, your highness.”
“I see. Commander, of course you will inform me of any plans to attack the enemy.”
The commander barely suppressed a grimace as he bowed. “As you command your highness.”
. . .
Gyuk Lee-hwa turned away from Commander Rii and made her way down the wall stairs. Inwardly she felt a private glow of satisfaction. Now the man had no choice but to allow her to fight. Mong-geun wasn’t happy either, she could tell by his silence as he accompanied her back to their quarters.
“My lady. . .” He began, once they were alone.
“You disapprove?” Lee-hwa asked. Her voice was slightly muffled as she removed the lacquered armor, so that she wore only a cotton tunic and pants. The old graybeard sighed, “Princess, I know you are eager for your first action. All soldiers know this feeling. However, forcing Commander Rii’s hand in that way-“
“The man’s going to be miserable about me going into battle no matter how many rose petals I cover it with. If he really doesn’t like the idea he can talk to Father about it.”
Mong-geun sighed again. “Which you know he won’t do. His Majesty has been very indulgent with your pursuits, and many in the capital have grown accustomed to it, as have I.”
“Only after you made me sleep in the rain all night.”
A reluctant grin broke through the old man’s disapproval. “Your memory serves you poorly, princess. I didn’t make you do anything. You could have gone inside whenever you chose.”
It was an old joke between them and Lee-hwa returned Mong-geun’s smile.
“My point, your highness, is that countless others will not be used to you. ‘Covering it in rose petals’ as you put it, may not change the facts, but it can make the facts less discomforting for them.”
Lee-hwa shook her head impatiently. “Father always told me that he prized frankness above all else. That’s why he made you one of the Favored after he claimed the throne.”
“You may recall that he and I had been friends for many years so there is an understanding between us. Can you claim such a thing between yourself and Commander Rii? Or anyone here besides myself?”
Lee-hwa scowled at her mentor. Then she reached for her spear, bow and quiver, propped beside her bed.
“I’m going to the practice yard.”
Mong-geun sighed again, but said nothing more.
It did not take long for the princess to find the archery butts. Several of the soldiers paused in their own training to stare as she walked past. Long accustomed to such attention, Lee-hwa didn’t even deign to return the looks as she chose a target, and strung her bow. She noted a few looks of surprise at the ease at which the weapon of bamboo and buffalo horn bent in her hands. That first hard thunk as her first arrow struck the center of the target gave her a rush of satisfaction. So, for a time Lee-hwa was able to forget her frustration at Mong-geun, losing herself in the enjoyment of her skill.
Finally she ran out of shafts and went to pull them out of the targets. It was then that she noticed some of the soldiers doing the same. One of them pulled an arrow from the butt next to hers and Lee-hwa saw how the man had to twist hard to pull it out. Only then did she realize how easily her own arrows came free. The soldier must have felt her stare because he looked back at her. A small smile briefly touched his lips as he too noted how shallowly her arrows had penetrated. Far enough to inflict lethal wounds, but not as deep as his. It was a small point. It was infuriating.
The soldier retrieved his last arrow and rejoined his comrades. Lee-hwa could see him say something inaudible, as well as the wide grins that appeared on the faces of the others. Neither one looked her way or said anything; common soldiers would not have dared, and strode back to the barracks. Give it three hours, a little more, and the whole fort will be talking about the princess and her ‘woman’s bow’.
With an effort Lee-hwa managed to hide her anger. It would be so easy to deal with them. She could simply order Commander Rii to arrest them for insolence towards a royal personage. The penalties for such an offense would be harsh. But she knew, in the end it would only make the rest even more contemptuous of her. Cursing to herself, Lee-hwa retrieved the last of her arrows, took up her spear, and proceeded to dismantle several of the available targets. When she finally registered Mong-geun’s voice calling to her, the sun was high and she was standing amid shreds of straw and sacking.
Lee-hwa turned to face him, brushing a stray hair from her face. “Yes?”
“I’ve received a message from Commander Rii. We are invited to join in a surprise attack on the enemy camp.”
Lee-hwa’s frustration was instantly swept away by the words. “How soon?”
She saw the old man smile at her enthusiasm. “Within the hour.”
. . .
In the end Commander Rii decided to command the expedition himself. Probably so that he could help Mong-geun keep an eye on her. The raiding party of fifty left Chu-sang down a narrow mountain trail that circled around the enemy encampment. Slowly. Lee-hwa was actually surprised by how slowly they went. Every man brought a horse, but instead of mounting, they walked beside the beasts.
“We must save their strength in case we need to retreat quickly.” Was Commander Rii’s terse reply to her question.
For hours they walked. The late spring sun crawled across the sky, and Lee-hwa tried to ignore how hot her armor was becoming. Relief from the heat came slowly as the sun began to set. Relief from boredom came more quickly when the trail finally emptied onto the plain.
At this range the Wei army’s encampment was beginning to look like a field of fireflies as the first campfires were lit. Commander Rii had timed their arrival well, for the sun was now half hidden by the horizon and the land was draped in purple shadows.
Lee-hwa felt a thrill run through her at the simple command. She climbed easily into the saddle, making sure her bow and spear were secure.
“Forward, but slowly. We charge on my command.”
So the party trotted their horses out from cover onto the darkening plain. Lee-hwa nocked arrow to string as she guided the horse with her knees. She felt her heart pounding with excitement. Nine years of training and exercise, of enduring whispers and slights, trading the soft curves of womanhood for a soldier’s strength. Would it finally be rewarded?
The Wei sentries stood by their watch fires, but even so she did not see which one was the first to spot them. A shout in a foreign language rang out. Lee-hwa pointed her bow at the nearest silhouette, drew and loosed. Around her the others did the same. She wished it were light enough to see if it had been her arrow that felled the sentry. Regardless, he fell, as did many others. But the shout had roused the camp and there were cries of confusion amid hastily barked orders from the officers. Fortunately the campfires provided ample illumination and the Hanguuli picked off dozens of the enemy. They fired as they charged and soon they were among the tents, trampling several in the process.
Amid the chaos Lee-hwa felt the blood humming in her veins. She had eschewed her bow and was now lunging at exposed faces and backs with her spear.
She had complained as a child when Mong-geun had refused to teach her the sword.
“You lack the strength.” He had said.
“You said skill is better than strength.” She had argued petulantly.
The old man had laughed. “Yes. In a duel, skill is better. But you only have to kill one enemy in a duel. In battle, you have many enemies to kill, and all is confusion and noise. In battle many of your foes will be wearing armor and you can’t cut down a man in armor. Such foolishness only exists is legends. You don’t kill a man in armor by cutting him down. You have to crush him, to beat him down, and that requires heavy weapons. A great sword, a mace, an axe, and such weapons require strength and stamina to wield in battle. The strongest man will always triumph over the strongest woman in such a test, but the spear? Using that requires skill and accuracy and these qualities care not if they are possessed by man or woman.”
He had made her practice by skewering peaches at a full gallop. Indeed, as her horse pranced among the panicked soldiers Lee-hwa found this kind of fight to be far easier than her training had been. It seemed as if the Wei soldiers moved with painful slowness. Or perhaps she was being endowed with godlike speed. The enemy seemed to wilt before her and her excitement burst forth in shriek of exultant ferocity. This was the joy of battle. The experience of being a warrior, armored and armed, dangerous and invincible. The fight seemed to last for hours, but in in truth, it was only a few minutes. However surprised they were, the Wei officers reacted with alacrity. And as their shouted orders began to register in the minds of their subordinates, the habits of discipline overcame shock and fear. While his troops and the princess rampaged among the enemy, Rii Sung-jae had kept his head and he now saw that the Hanguuli momentum was gone. He could see a body of Wei swordsmen advancing steadily towards the melee. If they did withdraw soon, their mounts would be surrounded and hamstrung, and they themselves would fall into enemy hands.
The commander pulled a bronze whistle from around his neck and blew. Most of his soldiers reacted instantly. Breaking off from the enemy, they drove their horses back the way they came. A few of the less experienced were too drunk with the fighting lust to heed the call. Lee-hwa was among them, lashing around at any man who dared to come within range. Suddenly she felt a ringing impact on the back of her helmet. The blow was glancing and did not stun her. She turned, snarling at whoever had dared to strike her, and saw it was Mong-geun.
“We must retreat!” He shouted over the din.
Lee-hwa still felt the thrumming in her veins and opened her mouth to object. The old soldier slapped her horse’s rump with his shield and the animal was stung into action. They both galloped after the others and soon made the relative safety of the mountain path. The raiding party had to slow their mounts down to negotiate the narrow trail and Lee-hwa had to pull hard on the reins to avoid a collision with Mong-geun.
Commander Rii was bringing up the rear of the soldiers and Lee-hwa saw that he kept glancing over his shoulder towards the plain. Several long moments passed, and then they heard the hooves.
“Pass the word along the line.” The commander told the horseman in front of him. “We need to speed up, the enemy is pursuing us.”
The canter became not quite a gallop but to Lee-hwa, it sounded like the enemy was still gaining. Her suspicions were confirmed when the first arrows began whickering around her ears. Risking a look over her shoulder she could see the Wei riders. They were coming on as fast they could, despite the dark and the narrow trail. Unless the Hanguuli increased their own speed, there was now way they could escape. Unless the Wei could be slowed down.
Gyuk Lee-hwa unslung her bow, turned in the saddle and fired. The darkness made aiming impossible so all she could do was fire blindly. However on the third attempt she had the satisfaction of hearing the agonized cry of a horse, followed by crashing and shouts of alarm.
That should slow them down for a bit.
Suddenly Lee-hwa felt the bow jerk in her hands. Realizing it had gotten caught on a low-hanging branch, she held on, relying on her horse’s momentum to tug it free. But the branch in question was in fact a thick, low growing maple limb. The bow was well made from layers of wood, glue and horn, and so it did not break. As a result, the princess found herself being jerked violently out of her saddle and into the darkness.
. . .
Awareness returned slowly. Lee-Hwa’s head seemed to be ringing like a temple bell. Gingerly she reached up and felt a crust of dried blood the left side of her head. Slowly, painfully, she rose to feet. As she did so she heard a clattering noise from the quiver on her back. She removed it and felt her heart sink as her hand probed blindly inside. It seemed like most of her arrows were broken.
What does it matter? The thought struck her. I have nothing to shoot them with.
She actually managed a small smile at that. A smile that vanished as the ringing in her head faded behind a throbbing ache. Grimacing against the pain she tried to stock of her surroundings. At first nothing, but tree trunks and undergrowth met her gaze. Then she saw the trail, less than five paces away.
They must have missed me in the dark
Cautiously, Lee-hwa emerged from the underbrush. There seemed to be no sign, either of the enemy, or her comrades.
It was too dark to see any tracks that might help her. And with the enemy possibly nearby, it was too dangerous for her to wait out the night. Praying that she was heading in the right direction, she began walking. Several paces later something gently knocked against her shoulder. She flinched away but nothing happened. Cautiously she reached out and felt a familiar shape. Her bow. Relief filled her and she tried to pull it free of the branches. It remained in place.
Then she heard the hooves. Just the hooves. No voices raised in search of her. No one calling her name. The enemy was coming this way.
Frantically she jiggled the bow back and forth. She felt less resistance in one direction and pulled that way. At last the bow slid free of the tree limb. The hooves were now thundering in her ears. Lee-hwa scrambled rather ungracefully back under cover of the trees and crouched low, eyes and ears straining. She saw a blur of dark shapes. Heard rough voices in a foreign tongue even over the pounding hoof beats. And then the enemy was past her, their noise fading away. For a long time Lee-hwa remained where she was, with only the throbbing ache in her head for company. Slowly her frantic energy faded, replaced by an intense lethargy. Reluctantly she regained her feet and resumed walking. She had to get back to the fortress.
Time had little meaning for Gyuk Lee-hwa as she trudged along the trail. At first, to distract herself from her head wound she tried to count heartbeats. In the end she gave up to endeavor as pointless. The pain was slow to fade away and at times she felt light headed. The urge to stop and simply sleep where she was kept whispering to her. In response she sent her mind back to the night Mong-geun had put her out. She could still remember the incident clear as day. The look of disbelieving dismay and disgust on his face when Father had commanded him to oversee her training was especially memorable.
A warrior must learn endurance. He said, before telling her to stay out in the garden all night during a heavy rain. Much to his amazement, the servants had found her still there the next morning, wet and shivering, but undeterred. Lee-hwa’s reverie was broken by a sudden spell of dizziness and only by half leaning, half falling against a nearby tree did she avoid toppling to the ground. She waited, heart and skull throbbing once again as her vision slowly regained its focus.
Don’t give up on me yet, old man. I have no intention of wasting the years you gave me.
At last the world stopped spinning and she resumed her weary trek.
. . .
They did not notice Lee-hwa’s absence until the raiding party returned to Chu-sang. The Wei pursuit had been fierce and even after they were safe behind the fortress walls, the enraged cavalrymen had lingered for hours out of bowshot. They hurled insults at Chu-sang’s walls but little else. Commander Rii had declared it too dangerous to send a search party.
“I’m sorry Lord Nim. But I have my own responsibilities.”
The man was right, and his words were apologetic, but Mong-geun still felt physically sickened by them. Responsibility. Even if the king forgave him for this failure he would probably still commit suicide in recompense.
The whole night, Mong-geun stood watch on the eastern wall, trying futilely to pierce the dark woods that masked the trail they had taken. To his surprise, Commander Rii stayed with him for most of the night. He occasionally left to give necessary orders but otherwise he kept vigil with Mong-geun. Time seemed to distort for the old soldier that night. Some moments seemed to last for ages, and yet when the sun began to slowly peek out over the horizon it felt as though mere seconds had passed.
“There doesn’t seem to be any sign of the enemy.” Commander Rii said. “I’ll see if I can organize a search party. Perhaps you should go and rest.”
Mong-geun nodded woodenly in response. In his minds eye he still saw a stubborn girl-child, wrapped in a sodden cloak with a running nose. A young woman practicing with bow and arrow until her tender fingers bled. Skewering fruit from the royal peach trees at full gallop. A delighted smile at his increasingly warm praise at her progress.
“Old man! Old man!”
At first Mong-geun wondered if it was memory speaking to him. Then he saw a thin, dirt-caked figure wearily trudging towards the wall. Some of the soldiers nocked arrows to strings but Commander Rii ordered them to hold. Mong-geun did not wait for the commander’s approval. He ran down to the eastern gate and ordered it opened at once. Moment’s later she stood before him, ragged, exhausted and filthy, but very much alive. Through sheer force of will Nim Mong-geun merely bowed to her.
“I am glad beyond words to see you safe your highness.”
“I’m glad to be safe.” Lee-hwa patted him on the shoulder.
Commander Rii came running with several soldiers in his wake and expression that could freeze water.
“Princess, thank goodness you’re safe but what in the name of the gods happened? How did you lose your horse?”
Mong-geun winced at the man’s tone, which went beyond what a man of his rank should say to a royal. If Lee-hwa was offended, she showed no sign.
“My bow was caught on a tree so I went to retrieve it.”
Rii Sung-jae’s eyes widened at this. So did the soldiers. So did Mong-geun’s.
“You wanted to retrieve a bow?” The commander said, a little stupidly.
“Yes. I could hardly leave it for the Wei to find.”
Now Mong-geun felt as slow-witted as the rest.
“Princess, a mere bow is hardly worth-“
“Oh! No, I don’t mean like it was valuable. Now if it had been Father’s or maybe my uncle’s bow I would have left it for the Wei.”
“You would have. . . “ Commander Rii faltered. Simply repeating what she said would make him look foolish.
“Think about it. They have the family crest on their bows, just as mine does.” Lee-hwa continued, indicating the character that represented her family name, artfully carved into the bow’s belly. “And Father and Uncle’s bows are much stronger than mine. If the Wei captured one of those they would think, ‘what a fearsome warrior the owner must be.’ But mine? They would say, ‘here is woman’s bow. A feeble pathetic weapon.’ Then they would laugh and think we are all weaklings. And that would be intolerable.”
She said this matter-of-factly, as if the answer were perfectly reasonable. And she smiled at them, as if the matter were of little consequence. Mong-geun stared at his charge, unable to believe what he was hearing. Then one of the soldiers coughed. Another made a strangled noise of his own. Before long most of the men in earshot were laughing.
Robert Webb © 2016
The streetlights shine like bright obnoxious stars as I make my way through a light drizzle. A chilly wind blows and I zip my coat up a little tighter. I lick my lips, feeling very much in need of a stiff drink tonight.
Me or the bottle Jim. Which is it?
“Fuck.” I snarl, shaking my head to dislodge the memory. Makes my throat dry just thinking about it.
The bar’s only a few blocks away, its neon sign looking like a beacon of hope. Then someone screams and a man runs out of the alley in front of me. He runs past me, knocking me against the wall as he does so.
“Ass!” I yell after him.
I pick myself up and am about to move on when the sound of sobbing reaches my ears. I peer into the alleyway and see a woman huddled against the wall in a torn dress.
“You all right?”
I walk over and offer her my coat. That dress certainly isn’t up to performing its intended function tonight.
“Thank you.” She says, hugging to coat closed to cover herself. She has no make up on and has a swollen lip courtesy of that bastard from earlier. But lustrous black hair, emerald green eyes and otherwise flawless skin? A man would have to blind not to call her a beauty.
“How bad did that guy hurt you?”
She wipes at her eyes and stands. “Not nearly as bad as he wanted too. He must have thought someone would come when I screamed and he panicked.” “Just as well, right?”
“Right. And you are?”
“Jim.” I extend a hand to her. She takes it. Her hand feels icy cold.
I help her to her feet. “So how did you end up with a creep like that?”
She sighs, adjusting an errant strand of hair. “Let’s just say I was feeling a little desperate for companionship.”
“Really? I’d have figured someone like you wouldn’t have to worry about making friends.”
She smiles at me, a little wanly. “I thought the mantra these days was looks aren’t everything?”
“Point. You not a people person?”
“Usually. Tonight wasn’t usually.”
For a moment we just stand there awkwardly. I try not to stare where I shouldn’t. Even wearing my coat there’s quite a bit on display.
“Uh. You want me to take you to police? Or maybe back to your place?”
“No, thank you.” Hannah pauses then looks up at the sky. “You ever wonder why most people are sad when it rains?”
I look up, and only get some cold drops in my face for my trouble. There’s nothing to see but a darkening gray sky.
“I like to think it’s because we’re all connected to the world. When we are sad, so is the world.”
Damn. I’m no good at this philosophical stuff. “I wouldn’t know anything about that. Does the sky just take the majority view? What about the few sad folks when everyone else is happy?”
She smiles at that and by God does it make that swollen lip look fetching.
“We call her Mother Earth don’t we? Her moods are just more complex.” “Which makes me a dull caveman then?”
She actually flushes at that and looks away. “No. I wouldn’t call you that.”
“What a relief.”
She actually laughs. This night is just getting batter and better. Then my dry throat reasserts itself.
“You want to get a drink? There’s a place a few blocks down.”
She smiles wryly at me. “That’s what the last one said.”
I raise my hands defensively. “Hey I don’t hit women.”
Not that I haven’t been tempted lately.
At this tears begin forming in her eyes and suddenly she buries her face in my chest. At first I’m too shocked to do anything. Then, awkwardly I put my arms around her. She returns the embrace, sobbing and further soaking the front of my shirt.
“He. . .he . . .he almost. . .”
“It’s ok. He can’t hurt you now.” What else can I say? What do you say to someone whose avoided that kind of experience? The rain starts to fall harder.
Her embrace tightens and her shoulders shake even harder. I stroke her hair, feeling like I’m comforting a little girl, rather than a grown woman. Then again I can hardly blame her.
She could ease up a little though.
“You know.” I shift awkwardly as her grip tightens further. “Drinking away your sorrow isn’t recommended by the doctor, but I think it works wonders for the spirit. Why don’t you let me take you down to the bar. My treat.”
She shakes her head. “Just a little longer.” She sniffles around my shirtfront.
“All right. But could you loosen up a little? You’re stronger than you look.”
She says nothing but her embrace tightens even more. Now my ribs are starting to feel sore and it’s getting hard to breathe. I tug at her arms, gently as first, but then more insistently. I blink the rain out of my eyes. Is it me or is her skin growing darker. Beneath my fingers her shoulders suddenly feel harder than skin should be.
“Hey!” Come on! You’re crushing me, let go!”
“But that’s the point.”
At last she looks up at me. Her eyes are still emerald green, but the pupils are now slitted, like a cats.
This has to be a dream.
Hannah doesn’t let go but her head rises until it’s well above my own. Her mouth elongates into reptilian jaws. Her hair fades out and her head is now covered in jet black scales. Instead on twining arms it feels like a solid band is wrapped around my chest, crushing the breath from me.
This can’t be real. I’ve just had too much to drink today. Any moment I’ll wake up.
The snake, it’s coils as thick around as a man’s thigh hovers over me as black spots begin to fill in the edges of my vision. Those glowing green eyes remain locked on mine. I try to say something, anything, but only a hoarse wheezing sound emerges.
Just a dream. Just another crazy liquor dream.
The snake’s mouth opens wide. It looks like a great dark pit opening before my fading vision.
I’ll wake up any moment now.
Distantly I hear something breaking. Pain flares through my body but I’ve no breath to cry out. Already the pain is fading, just like everything.
Just a dream fading away.
“You were a sweet man.” Says the snake. Her mouth doesn’t move. I hear the words like they’re in my own head. Just more proof that this is a dream. The dark maw lowers ever closer, swallowing the sky, the rain and the neon lights.
“I really am lucky, to have found a man like you.”
Robert Webb © 2016
Dear Mother and Father,
I hope you and the pests are still well. At the time of this letter it has been three months since the Tempest’s departure from Frost Point. We’ve been heading south ever since and for the last few weeks it has felt almost like summer. Sometimes I feel guilty thinking about how cold it must be back home. I hope Bilkin and Hargile were able to help you get the harvest in without me. So far the pay has been worth my absence from home. Each month the ships pursier distributes a silver crown to each seamen. You should have one of these along with my letter. Maybe it will be enough to by a new milk cow, if prices haven’t gone up back home.
If Kaya asks, tell her that no, I haven’t seen any Sea Folk or wind wraiths. Carbet, one of the hands, claims he saw a sea serpent during his night watch two weeks ago, but then he related the tale after he was found that morning asleep at his post with a bottle of rum next to him. We all had to watch him get ten lashes for negligence. Thankfully, I have yet to commit any offense worthy of the bosun’s whip.
You may rest easy Mother. Contrary to your fears most of the seamen are decent enough fellows, though they have a fondness for drink and pipeweed that you and Father would disapprove of. A week out from Frost Point several of the hands brought me below decks out of sight of the officers. There one of them, a giant of a man named Salus taunted and insulted me. Father, you have always taught me that a man never seeks a fight, but some of this man’s remarks quite frankly went too far. I managed to get some good hits in but Salus is built like an ox. I haven’t been thrashed so badly since I was seven. But then Salus took me to the ship’s doctor, telling him some fable about me falling down a stairwell in the hold, then brought me a mug of ale, grinning as if we were best of friends. Apparently he and the other hands had been ‘baiting the bear’ as they called it, and by fighting back I had passed. Some strange seafarers tradition no doubt.
Actually, after dropping his bullying persona, Salus is a friendly and good-spirited man. He has a wife and daughter in Dernwater and he has an unfortunate tendency to brag about them. In fact most of the men have either wives or sweethearts back in their homeports. As it turns out Salus is captain of the gun crew I’ve been assigned to aboard ship. Again, due to my youth and inexperience I serve as powder monkey, the one charged with fetching shot and powder from the magazine during action. Salus, as gun captain is in charge of sighting and aiming the piece. Filider, loads the shot and powder while Denk rams it home and Chana takes care of the fuse. They are all good fellows, though they tend to be condescending towards me at times. Denk, is kinder than the rest and he told me that the teasing was because I had yet to prove myself in action. Fillider is only a year older than me, but has been aboard the Tempest since he was eight and likes to put on airs. Chana doesn’t talk much, except to chant some Givarian scripture. He aspires to be a priest apparently, which the others tease him for.
Captain Farrut is also a decent man, if strict and aloof. I rarely see him and he of has little to do with the likes of me. The only hateful members aboard are First Mate Kelbrecht and Olly the bosun. Admittedly in Olly’s case, being unpleasant is a requirement of his position. The only other person of importance on board ship is Enraki the wyrm handler. As one of the new hands on board the duty of feeding Ironwing, that’s the wyrm, fell to me. Every morning the hands cast nets and lines in the hopes of catching the wyrms dinner. If there’s not enough fish, one of the livestock down in the hold must be sacrificed. Either way, someone has to bring the meat to Ironwing on the fan deck at the cruiser’s stern. No one volunteers for feeding duty. The rest of the crew simply appoints the newest member of the crew.
Enraki spends almost all his time on the fan deck with Ironwing. Being the widest part of the ship it’s the only place the wyrm can rest after scouting for other ships. Enraki himself is an odd fellow. When I first made my way to fan deck I found him sitting beside the wyrm’s head, crooning to it like a mother bird to its hatchlings. It was Ironwing that noticed me first and his great serpentine neck came around so that I found myself staring into his yellow cat eyes. Before I could do anything a long forked tongue emerged and proceeded to lick me and the tub of fresh butchered goat I was carrying. Enraki assured me that Ironwing was only being friendly, but I was still glad to do my duty and escape.
Most of the crew avoid Enraki. He seems a friendly, affable man, yet the others seem to fear him because of the wyrm, and at the same time, they envy him because he himself does not fear the beast. The only exceptions to this are Captain Farrut and Doctor Jeven, who treats the wyrm’s ailments as well as the crews. Almost every night the officers dine with the captain in his cabin. As wyrm handler, Enraki is included in this company, much to the displeasure of the others, especially First Mate Kelbrecht. Two weeks after joining I think I saw the first mate make the sign of the Evil Eye behind the handlers back after coming back from the fan deck.
By now however you’re probably wondering about the bottle of Karidan wine that I’ve sent with this letter. Well a month ago we were tacking against a westerly wind when the lookout spotted a Sendurian vessel. The bell was rung and all hands went to battle stations. Most of the men grabbed crossbows and either lined the decks or climbed into the rigging. The other gun crews were sent to ready their cannons, but two, including mine was send to the hold. Ironwing was going to take off so certain procedures had to be followed. A wyrm is heavy and has great strength, a takeoff could overbalance even a ship the size of the Tempest. Down in the hold the ballast stones are stored inside thick canvass sacks. We attached at least three of these to a hook which itself was suspended from a pulley system bolted to the deck above. At the signal we eight of us grabbed the assembly and hauled towards the bow as quickly as we could. The ship rocked beneath us and we heard a bugling roar as Ironwing took off. Just as quickly we hauled the ballast sacks back towards the stern to make up for now the absent weight.
Our task completed we hurried to the gun deck and through the side ports we could see the distant shape of the target vessel drawing ever closer. From that distance Ironwing seemed no bigger than a fly buzzing back and forth above. As we continued our approach I saw the bright white sails of the other ship wither and disappear under the rain of acid from the wyrms jaws. The other ship had no wyrm of it’s own to guard it so by the time we came into firing range there was no need for the cannons.
We had to wait below decks as the marines boarded the prize. Only when the ship was secured that we lowly hands were allowed to board and search the prize for booty. Off course the marines and officers had already confiscated most of whatever cargo the vessel was carrying. Salus led the rest of us below decks and after some searching Chana found a small sackcloth bundle, the kind in which a sailor would keep his belongings. Inside were four small bottles, more like flasks actually.
Because alcohol is forbidden to Givarians I received his share. Denk drank from his first and swears it’s from the fabled vineyards of Karidan. I’m sending this bottle to you, with my love. As I write this, the moon hangs above, half full, and the others are finishing dinner. We are currently docked at Redswell. We will be allowed to go into the port tomorrow so I’ll try to find someone willing to take this message to you. The sea is calm, still no sign of the storms for which this vessel is named. It will be another half year before the ship returns to Frost Point and I’m not sure where we might be, or if a second letter could even reach you.
Whether you receive this or not, I hope you know that you are always in my thoughts. Tell Kaya that I’m still keeping an eye out for wind wraiths. And tell Hargile that he’s still not allowed to rifle through my things back home. And make sure Bilkin’s not picking fights with the other boys.
All my love, Quellt.
Robert Webb © 2017
Beneath the Balcony Romeo Montague sat by the garden wall. Listening to the noises of the soft Verona night, his mind plagued with melancholy thoughts.
“He jests at scars that never felt a wound.” He said, remembering angrily the mocking words of Mercutio only moments before. The other had come seeking him along with Benvolio, but Mercutio had seemed more interested in his crass remarks.
What know him of pain? What know him of fire?
Of the flame that sears my heart even now?
He cries out ‘Rosaline’, but what matter,
For she has become as a ghost to me.
A shade, a shadow, ashes since grown cold.
Her name no longer ignites the fire,
For now another holds the burning brand
Whose very light doth surpass e’en the sun.
A wry chuckle escaped the young man’s lips. It’s sound mingled both melancholy and ironic mirth.
Verily, it would seemeth fate’s decree
That I love only the fair and lovely
Daughters of my house’s most hated foe.
What will they think e’er they discover
That the name of the one who holds my heart
Is Capulet, a name whose sound is hate?
Capulet, whose very intonations,
Doth cry out for the drawing of swords.
Romeo looked up at the stars, but they held no answers for his unspoken questions. They simply twinkled merrily down at him, completely oblivious to him and all the world. Once more anger overtook the young man.
Fie on thee, oh feckless heavenly lights!
Why must ye, in all thy indifference,
Cause me to yearn for that which cannot be?
Oh Juliet, How I long to see thee.
A glimpse of you would feed my hungry soul.
If only thou scorned me like Rosaline,
Then could time at last heal my wounded heart.
But nay, just as my heart burns for thee
In my soul I know thou returns my love.
Alas the stars that have brought you to me,
Have been fated to tear our love in twain.
I feel this truth within my very bones.
And yet what alternative can there be?
Both choices lead towards separation.
Does it truly matter which we choose?
The slow agony of what should ne’er be?
Or the sharp, harsher pain of severance?
My mind says to avoid the greater pain,
While my heart cries out, shun the slow torture.
Is there no third path, which we may yet tread?
A noise from above jolted Romeo from his musing. Moving away from the wall, he backed up until he could see the balcony clearly. The light curtains flickered with movement and the sight set his young heart to pounding even faster.
Juliet, angel of peerless beauty!
My pain eases at a mere glimpse of you.
You give me both strength and resolve at once.
Strength to face whichever course we choose.
Resolve the weather the harshest tempest.
Lead, and I shall follow you unto death.
This feud, these names, they shall not stop our love.
It burns stronger than any hate can match
No fate however cruel can e’er exceed,
The joy of this one moment, this instant.
Oh come to me fair keeper of my soul,
To soothe my worried heart and make me whole.
The curtains drew back and to Romeo Montague it was as if the darkness of night were banished. As if the dawn had come early. For there she was, in all her radiant splendor.
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”
Robert Webb © 2017
She lives in a house on top of a hill. She is said be as old that hill. They say she never goes into town, not even for food. They say she lives off of rat bones, rainwater and spite. They say that she keeps a pet cat the size of a pit bull. They say her garden is full of poisonous mushrooms and man-eating weeds. Ms. Crammer has something of a reputation, as you can see, and not a very pleasant one. So naturally we thought is was a good idea to try and hurt her cat.
“I still don’t like this.” Donna said morosely.
It was just the five of us when we met at the bottom of the hill that evening. Me, Donna, Jerry, Sarah and Tim. Going to Ms. Crammer’s was Tim’s idea. At Donna’s words he showed her the bandaged wounds on his arm.
“You can go home if you want. That stinking cat is going to pay!”
“It’s just a cat Tim.” Donna protested, one last time.
“You sure she’s asleep?” Sarah asked fiddling with her curly hair. She always did that when she was nervous.
“Of course I’m sure. You think I’d go anywhere near this place if I wasn’t?”
“But what if the cat’s inside?” I asked.
“It isn’t.” Tim assured me.
“How do you know?”
“Because there’s a gap under the porch where it goes to sleep every night. I’ve seen it on my route.”
The gap in question was framed with splintered bits of wood. In the soft glow of our flashlights, I thought they resembled crooked teeth. Tim cautiously approached, waving the beam of his light back and forth. There was no sign of the cat.
“It was always there before.” Tim grumbled as he bent ddown to peer into the gap.
“We should go.” Donna was starting to sound worried. “What if someone sees the flashlights and catches us?”
“Gimme a second.” Tim got down on all fours and poked his flashlight into the darkness under the house. “If it’s not here we’ll- There it is!”
Tim scrambled into the gap. There was a sound of scuffling for several moments.
“Come on guys! Get in here and help me.”
Sarah and Jerry crawled in immediately. Donna hesitated, looking nervously at me. The sounds of scuffling and muttering voices, interrupted often by the sound of the cat hissing in anger was not overly loud but I kept glancing at the windows of the house. Any moment they would come on and. . . well I had no idea what Ms. Crammer would do, but I had no desire to find out.
“What?” Even as I asked Donna the question I knew what was wrong. The sounds of the attempt to capture the cat had fallen completely silent.
Hesitantly I bent down and peered through the gap. No sign of anyone.
Overcome with concern I knelt down and scrambled under the porch, followed by Donna. All was dark and grime and I was thinking about how Mom would kill me for getting so filthy when suddenly my groping hand suddenly felt nothing ahead of it. Before it had been feeling out along the ground, now it dangled over empty space. Gingerly, I crawled forward a few paces until I found myself peering over the edge.
I was staring down into an empty chamber of some kind, like a basement. To my relief the others were all right. The basement was small, barely 10 x 15 feet with a door at one end and a bunch of cabinets against the other. Sarah was perched atop Tim’s shoulders, using the cabinets for purchase as she tried to reach the lip. Jerry was busy squinting through the glass at what was inside the cabinets. The cat was crouched by the door, its fur bristling angrily. By then Donna was beside me and we could both see Sarah’s mouth moving as she reached up, but strangely we could hear no sound.
“What’s going on?” Donna asked.
“No idea. Come one let’s help her.”
I reached down towards Sarah. Her eyes widened with shock and she recoiled from my hand. This caused Tim to lose balance and they both fell back onto Jerry and from there to the floor.
“What happened?” Asked Donna.
“I don’t think she can see us up here.” It sounded ridiculous but it was the only answer I could think of. “She only saw my arm when I reached down to her.”
I could feel Donna’s shoulder against mine as she moved up beside me and reached down her own hands towards the others. After a moment the others seemed to understand what was happening and made another attempt. Sarah climbed atop of Tim’s shoulders and reached out towards our hands.
And that was when the cat attacked.
Like a steak of furred lightning, it clambered up Tim and Sarah just as she had grabbed onto mine and Donna’s hands. It hissed and scratched my arm. Unable to help myself I yelped with pain and let go of Sarah’s left hand. This cause her to grab at Donna with both hands. Sarah’s weight was too much. With a scream Donna was dragged over the edge and fell on top of the others into the basement.
Grimacing with pain I felt at my scratched arm. There was blood, but not as much as there could have been. When I looked back down again the others were picking themselves up again off the floor. The cat had jumped back down into the room and was licking its paw.
That was when the door opened and Ms. Crammer entered.
The others froze and I ducked back, despite the fact that she couldn’t have seen me. After a moment, panting fearfully in the darkness under the house, I cautiously crawled forward to peer back over the edge. Ms. Crammer, old, thin and hunched with loose gray hair, was still in the doorway. The cat had jumped onto her shoulder and was nuzzling her wrinkled cheek. The others had gotten up and were standing in a line in front of the cabinet, looking guilty and nervous at the same time. I found myself straining to hear any sound, even though I knew by now how pointless it was.
Ms. Crammer walked towards the others. Then moved past them and opened her cabinet. She began taking out what looked like jars of various sizes and setting them on the floor. The others were quick to shuffle out of her way and for several long minutes we all just stared at her as she worked, picking out each jar, unscrewing the lid and placing it on the floor. When all the jars were opened she turned to regard the others. Slowly, she lifted a quivering finger to point at Jerry.
And the nightmare began.
First is was Jerry’s fingernails. Then his fingers, digit by digit. They simply fell off. There was no blood, or none that I could see from where I was, but as his eys and nose fell off his face I felt vomit rising up my throat. His skin peeled back. His teeth and hair fell out. Then his blood began to puddle about him on the ground. The others were screaming, their mouths were wide open anyway, as they backed away from Jerry as he turned into a strangely organized pile of body parts. The bones, seemingly of their own accord, grouped together into a neat little pile. As did the muscles, and organs. Ms. Crammer made another gesture and a flood of red liquid, Jerry’s blood I realized with sick horror, traveled through the air and into one of the open jars.
As the rest of Jerry began to do so as well the old witch turned to face the others and lifted her finger again. Sarah’s hair began to curl even tighter against her head. Then her fingers, her earlobes, her feet. Donna and Tim screamed and backed away as Sarah fell the floor, her body slowly but steadily contorting into a mass of spirals. This time I did get sick. I withdrew from the opening just in time, else my vomit would have splashed down and alerted Ms. Crammer to my presence. Tears stung my eyes and my heart hammered wildly in my chest. I have to escape. I have to tell someone.
I don’t know why I went back to look again. Maybe it was the faint hope that maybe the others had been able to escape. Maybe I thought I could still do something. A false hope. There was nothing to do but watch. I deliberately avoided looking at Sarah, or what had been her. I saw Donna cowering in the corner, but no sign of Tim. Then I saw the cat scratching at a post that hadn’t been there. That was when I saw the loose clothes dangling from it and the scratches that oozed red with each fresh wound. Ms. Crammer was putting the jars containing Jerry’s parts away. She closed the cabinet, turned around and walked toward the door. She paused right beside Donna who by this point was curled into a ball on the floor. Ms. Crammer didn’t do anything, she didn’t point a finger at the traumatized girl. She simply looked at her with eyes as black as the spaces between the stars. Even from where I lay looking down I felt something cold and alien in those eyes.
Then the door closed behind the old woman and she was gone. There was only Donna, the cat and. . . .
For several painful heartbeats I waited, eyes locked on the door. When I appeared that Ms. Crammer was not coming back I shuffled forward and, carefully lowered my head below the lip of the opening. Heart thumping, afraid of falling in and being trapped, I stage whispered as loudly as I dared.
“Donna. Come on.”
Slowly, almost reluctantly she raised her head to look at me.
“Come on. I can try to pull you out.”
At last she stood up and staggered towards me, her face was pale, her eyes hollow. She had had even more of a front row seat to the horror than I did. Gingerly she climbed up the cabinet and grabbed at my arms. Grunting and straining I tried to lift her up, while at the same time wriggling backwards in an effort to pull her over the edge. She clutched at my arms as her legs scrabbled for purchase on the cabinet. Her nails dug painfully into my arm. The pain got worse and worse. At least it was getting easier to pull her up. That was when I noticed something odd.
“Donna, your eyes.”
She blinked up at me in confusion. Her eyes. Her pupils were slits. I felt a chill running through me. I looked at her hand. It was noticeably smaller than before, and her nailed were growing thinner and sharper. Donna saw it too. With a scream she let go of me and fell back onto the floor of the basement. As if responding to her terror the transformation accelerated. Within seconds a black and white cat struggled free of the pool of clothes on the floor and began to run frantically around the room, fur bristling, mouth agape.
Ms. Crammer’s cat regarded Donna, casually licking a tabby paw. After a while Donna seemed to calm down and stood in one place, fur on end, seeming to pant for breath. The other cat walked towards her. Donna hissed at him, only to received a bat across the face from the other. It didn’t seem like a hard blow from where I lay watching. I think it was more the shock than anything that held Donna frozen and helpless as Ms. Crammer’s cat moved behind and then mounted her.
Robert Webb © 2017