Friday, May 16, 2008
Outside the dead were coming.
Seven Chimes. A tiny silver Death rang out the hour on tiny silver bells. And Yossard felt anew the uneasiness that seeped into his bones at this time and in this place. Of all the taverns and all the streets of Don Alern this was Yossard's least favourite and Marisen's most.
The Inn of Jasmine Shadows played out its night-time dance around them, air thick with smoke and whispers. In the street beyond the dark-varnished wicker doors someone wept, sharp and bitter herald to the nightly funeral procession. The cemetery was only a little down the way.
Sometimes even Yossard -- once child of the streets and bully-boy of tyrants -- marvelled at the slumbering profusion carted and paraded along the road. Don Alern was the city of gallows and the broken necked dead were swept in crowded columns to grave ground and incense-heavy sepulchre.
Marisen snorted, his eyes soft with the laughter weed he smoked by the pipeful. Yossard nursed a beer, rapidly growing flat, as his imagination played vivid and familiar tricks. In his mind's eye he saw the first funeral cart being drawn outside.
Fine tapers lit, black banners fluttering, the cart pulled by men with faces painted white. He looked down upon its passenger, bound in parchment wet with aromatic oils and preservatory fluid. And then the bindings fell free. Shrunken, jaundiced eyes stared up at him, month-dead lips twisted crazily.
Yossard shook away the image, and cursed his overactive imagination. The beer tasted too bitter in his mouth as he glared at his friend.
'We're broke, you know.'
Marisen tapped his head unsteadily with a long finger.
'Dear friend, a plot is hatching.' His soft face grew serious. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a roll of parchment, clumsily unfurling it, weighting the corners with bottles and plates. A layout, covered with notes in Marisen's spidery hand, of an inner city manse. Marisen jabbed a finger at the centre of the map. 'Tal Asperic. Fat old merchant on Sivart street, with even older and more corpulent guards, and far too much capital stored up in one place.'
Yossard had a bad feeling even then. He took a mouthful of stale beer and tried to drink it away, think it away; premonitory sensations were scarcely if ever reliable.
'Simple and sweet,' Marisen said.
Yossard forced a grin.
'Yes, simple and sweet.'
'Of course we shall need His blessing.'
His blessing. The Light Fingered Lord.
Yossard's belly grew cold. He finished his beer and hid his lack of enthusiasm behind his mug.
The funeral clattered by and the weeping grew to wailing and hysterical laughter.
The Light Fingered Lord lived deep beneath the city.
His home a shadow given substance that spread with every evening to cover the entire city, his sceptre the shrunken arm of a young man. His eyes the colour of old bones.
The path to him was well guarded, perhaps best by ignorance and fear. Few above the surface knew its labyrinthine ways, and fewer still would dare them. Marisen was counted in their number.
He limped down the steep and winding catacombs, whistling popular tunes as he went, obviously enjoying the acoustics of the lichen and shadow eaten tunnels -- the way that the tune would return to him, subtly altered a minute or two later. Yossard followed him reluctantly. Several times they passed cadaverous guards, with large eyes and chalk-dusted faces, who nodded greeting to Marisen and savoured Yossard's fear, throwing him broad and hungry smiles.
At last they reached His grand chamber and were led through the final midnight door by a moon-faced and eyeless chamberlain.
The adumbrate hall smelled of candle grease and black magic and there the Light Fingered Lord waited, slouching in the pale throne of his office and picking absently at his sceptre. A rat, perched on his shoulder, peered through the Lord's tangled yellow hair, watching with all too human eyes.
Both men bowed quickly and the Light Fingered Lord appeared pleased.
'So my two favoured sons come a-visiting,' he said and Yossard's skin goosed at the sound of that voice. It wasn't human. It held too much of the night; the savagery of rats and the scrape of dead men's nails on rotting coffin wood. 'It has been quite a while.'
Marisen's expression was apologetic. 'Everybody needs a holiday, my lord.'
'No rest for the wicked I am afraid.' The Light Fingered Lord's tone grew conspiratorial. 'Tell me, what have you planned?'
'We have a reputation to uphold,' Marisen whispered through the evening and into Yossard's ear.
Startled, Yossard turned. His mind had been miles away, or at least a mile underground. Night was settling its old black bones and the Light Fingered Lord's minions were coming out with the evening. Yossard could smell the thick chalk dust smeared upon his face, he could see it mirrored on Marisen's. They wore their Lord's colours tonight.
'What are you talking about?'
'We will disappoint many if we do not succeed this evening.'
Yossard stared at him painfully.
'If we do not succeed the morrow will most probably find us hanging in the gallow-yard. That is disappointment enough.'
They worked then in silence, unlatching and disarming; hurrying down tapestry hung hallways. Twice they had to duck into side rooms – Marisen swiftly picking their locks – as footsteps echoed towards them. And wait until they'd passed. With nary the slap of a felt-soled boot or an exhalation of breath above the volume of shadows they drifted through the old merchant's manor. But for those few passes of guardsmen's feet it was quiet. Tomb quiet and every step Yossard made, heightened the odd fear building inside him.
They soon reached Tal Asperic's treasure room and Marisen began to work upon the heavy safe there, his nimble fingers dancing, spinning combinations and sensing the subtle shifting of tumblers. There was no better peterman than Marisen. He had played with locks since first memory and knew their secrets well.
Yossard watched his friend with pride, even as his heart pounded with fear. Something did not feel right.
It was as the safe opened that the door to the room did likewise, its creak the first noise of the evening. Both men spun towards the sound and saw Tal Asperic there, his eyes widening.
Yossard was on him in a heartbeat, in terror his hands closed about the old man's throat. He shook, he squeezed and something shifted under his hands. There was a crack. Yossard yelped and released his grip. The old man fell to the floor dead.
Yossard's heart pounded in his ears, his stomach roiled, he looked towards Marisen and saw horror in his friend's eyes and, perhaps, disgust.
'Fill the bags,' Yossard hissed at him, then said no more. Marisen did as he was told.
The night had grown unfriendly. It flowed cruelly about them as they left the building, and slithered from rooftop to alleystone. From behind they heard sudden lamentations and angry cries and the clattering of weapons. They sprinted as fast as they could, weighed down by gold.
They ran to the only haven they had.
There was pursuit. They eluded capture half a dozen times, saved only by shadows and swiftness. Still it wasn't quite enough. As they leapt into an entrance to the caverns below, a musket fired and Yossard heard Marisen groan. He turned, grabbed his friend and carried him into the darkness.
No-one followed. Vengeance was not enough to draw their pursuers down here.
Pale faced men were waiting. One -- eyes voids, face smudged and lit by a vacuous grin -- lifted Marisen from Yossard's grasp. Carrying his wounded friend they led him down into the night.
The Light Fingered Lord was not pleased. He shook the withered sceptre of his office in their faces and paced around his throne.
'Such sloppiness, such madness. Have you not heard of rendering people unconscious -- tapping the head not snapping the neck? You, my finest thieves, have made the job so much harder now for everyone else. There will be outcry and clamour and vigilance!'
Yossard hung his head in shame. Marisen's eyes shone with tears.
'You are banished. My guards will take you to the western gate. There is a cart waiting for you.'
He appeared almost apologetic then. 'I am sorry, but this is the best that I can do, and it may not be enough.'
The Light Fingered Lord's eyes skipped over the bags that Yossard held. He shook his head sadly.
'Keep it all. Where you are going you may need it.' He made to say something else, then stopped, looking over at Marisen sorrowfully . The Light Fingered Lord turned towards Yossard and his face was tight with hatred.
'You will bring him down, that much I see. Your act will take you both. Murder is a portal to another world and you, my dears, have stepped through it.'
Yossard felt sick.
With a sudden disgusted gesture the Light Fingered Lord spun from them. Wan faced guards led them out.
At the Western wall a funeral cart waited, empty but for a ball of clean bandages. Yossard bound his friend's wound. Then the gates were opened and he pulled the cart and its load through, out into the early morning light, following the Western road away from the gallows town and up towards the mountains. Marisen could not walk at all now. The wound still bled and his face had grown pale; a smudge of sweating white in the harsh glare of the sunlight.
Around mid-morning they came to a crossroads and Yossard, tired, pulled the cart to one side of the road. With a great sigh he sat down beneath a tree.
'Where do we go now?' He asked and Marisen laughed painfully.
'As far away from home as possible.'
Yossard stared over at his friend, lying in the cart; he already looked a corpse.
'We need to find someone to treat that wound.'
'It's not that bad. Let us go West and over the range to Tevelwell. We've enough money to buy me a new leg and live in luxury till we're grey.'
Yossard seemed happy enough with that, though he still brooded over the Light Fingered Lord's words.
'West it is then.' He got up and pulled the cart along the western road.
They began their slow ascent into the mountains.
As the sun reached its noon resting point and the heat grew relentless, Yossard realised something was wrong.
The day had grown unnaturally silent. He heard no birdsong or wind, just the creak of the cart. The road was turning around the mountain, one side sheer cliff face, the other cliff lip. He paused to look around, far ahead a cart and behind a gaunt man holding a staff.
The figure waved at him, almost comically, then tapped the ground thrice.
Reality seemed to flex, a bright light waxed from staff-tip, then staff and wielder vanished. The earth began to fall away behind them. Yossard, for all the midday heat, broke out in a cold sweat.
'I don't like this,' Marisen moaned.
Yossard didn't like it either.
He hauled on. The trail had to end, to plateau out, to reach some sort of top. Everything ends.
Except the sharp pitched flow of Marisen’s voice and the dreadful, rasping cracking away of the trail behind.
“It’s getting closer. Can’t you move any faster, Yossard? It’s getting closer.”
“Shut up,” Yossard growled. “Shut up or I'll stop pulling the blasted cart, and leave it and you to fall. It's still a long way behind.”
He stared at the cart ahead and wondered at its owners. Distance made everything indistinct. Did a man work its thills or a horse? What cargo did it contain? He wondered if they even suspected what cracked and tumbled behind. Yossard doubted it and envied them their ignorance.
He had known Marisen for fifteen years. And all through those years they were only thieves and never murderers.
A murderer, he thought in disgust. I am a murderer. What next? A rapist? A dealer in children?
He hated himself. But it was done.
To Yossard the sound of crashing, crackling stone behind them was that of laughter. Surely it mocked them, with its slow and certain following of their footsteps, gradually catching up as Yossard's pace lagged.
"Time has stopped here, Yossard. I suspect that though it seems we are making some progress, we are in fact making none at all." He glanced back. "And it's getting closer. It's always getting closer." Marisen began to cry. "I don't want to die, Yossard. I'm too young to die."
Yossard ignored him, wondering if that was how the old man had felt.
We're all too young to die, he thought.
He remembered some kittens he had found as a child. They were weak and sickly with eyes that demanded his love. His mother made him kill them - drowning them in a bucket as they palpitated and struggled feebly in his hands. Indeed, he believed that his mother took some pleasure from the act. She hated him. She always had. Sometimes Yossard wondered at the miracle that stopped her from drowning him as a babe in a bucket of greasy water. Sometimes he wished she had.
Every day with her was pain. Insults, beatings. He was glad when she died. He drank two bottles of the finest wine that night. Then cried himself to sleep upon a whore's soft, uncaring breast.
He was not going to let Marisen die. He would keep pulling for that if nothing else. He could not stand to be responsible for another death.
Marisen, for all his groaning, was Yossard's best friend. There was no denying that. People had deserted Yossard all his life. Not that it was at all uncommon in Don Alern. One held out the hand of friendship warily; the other palm carefully concealing a blade. Relationships burned, then suddenly, grew cold and deadly.
Yossard had thought himself hard, but now he knew it all to be a lie. His inner self was crumbling as swiftly as the trail behind.
Step after step, the steep slope remaining eternally so. There was no change except in him. The sun drank its share of sweat and strength. His legs began to sing hard, burning pain and a deeper, duller weariness.
Step after step
Marisen slipped between cold rationality and high pitched fear. His crying was cyclical; following a pattern as much as Yossard's constant and increasingly strained steps. And always the trail-edge - crack-crumbling behind them - drew closer, and the cart ahead did not.
Yossard wondered about that cart and who might be on it. He picked at the thought, at the scab of his mind's eye. Picked until it bled. Visions flickered behind his lids.
Tal Asperic sat in the rear of the cart, his head lolling drunkenly, blue face already swelling and darkening with rot, his lips stretching with a huge grin. He laughed and pointed back at the fools who had killed him.
There were other passengers as well.
Step after step.
Every occupant was dead. All of them undone, wormed and swollen with death. People he had known or betrayed or who had betrayed him and died as a result. He saw his mother, lying with the old man, letting him fondle her corpse-shrunken breasts as she in turn pawed at his groin and kissed his darkly bruised throat and laughed with him.
Step after step.
He saw a man he recognised immediately as his father -– though he had never known his father in life -- pulling the cart. Like father like son. He was tall, once well built, though now only necrotic flesh remained; sinewy and worn away in places to pale, jaundiced bone. His lips had dried and curled into a gruesome rictus. His eyes had withered leaving shrunken lids to press against their sockets. The joints of his knees popped with every step.
Step after step.
They all hated him. They all wanted him dead.
Step after step.
Marisen's cries grew more insistent.
"Faster, Yossard. Faster. It's getting closer."
Finally Yossard stopped. It was all he could stand. Marisen screamed.
"You can't do this. Get moving or we will die!"
"It's too heavy," Yossard said. "Get rid of the gold. I can't carry it any more."
"No," Marisen spat between clenched teeth. "I've worked too hard for that."
Yossard smiled darkly, his heavy hands on his hips.
"Then you pull the cart." He walked away.
"You're right!" Marisen yelped, pulling himself up against the cart and reaching out imploringly.
His fingertips scabbed and coated in blood. His wound was bleeding again. "We'll get rid of the gold. What's gold if we can't live to spend it? We were broke before this. We can be broke again." He started hurling it over the back. "See. I'm throwing it away. Just start pulling. I need you. Yossard, you can see that can't you?" His voice barely carried above the cracking of the rock.
"Yes," Yossard said stepping back to the thills. "I can."
Yossard grunted and began to pull. For a while, it was easier. They moved away from the edge again and Marisen's whimpering levelled off.
"We were good friends weren't we?" Marisen asked. Yossard nodded.
"We were good for each other. I'd be dead but for you. Never wanted to do anything with my life, just wanted to die."
Marisen laughed sadly.
"So did I. You picked me up. I think we both lived longer than either of us ever expected. We had some good times and we deserved them."
"Should never have killed him," Yossard mumbled.
"But you did," Marisen said. "He is dead. It is done and cannot be undone. We'll make it yet."
Yossard's lips twisted to a numb grin. He was so very tired.
"Yes, we'll make it yet."
The edge kept up its laughter and Yossard staggered on.
They passed a while in silence.
To Yossard it seemed that everything in his life, every step had been upon a trail leading here. He could not have lived the way he had without expecting this; few thieves, if any, become septuagenarians. The young and the foolish crowd the thieves' quarters. Yossard grinned. Youth and foolishness are terrible ingredients for an old age.
His eyes turned again to the distant cart. He'd made no ground on it.
The earth cracked, shaking the cart and almost knocking Yossard to his knees. He looked back. A whole slab, at least three or four yards long, tumbled behind them. Whatever lead he had made was gone.
"It's closer," Marisen whined. "Hurry up, it's closer than it was before."
Yossard tried to pick up pace and succeeded, for a while.
The cart ahead mocked him with its unbridgeable distance. He cursed it with every breath and Marisen, mumbled and whispered in his blood drenched fear.
"Closer. Closer. I don't want to die. Maybe once, but not now. We gave it back. The gold is gone."
Yossard saw the cart's occupants dawn-clear in his head.
They were drinking wine now, sharing toasts, quaffing the blood-red stuff, till it bearded them thickly in dripping carmine. They passed a muddy bottle -- green glass showing through in places -- up to his father. Pulling with one hand, the sinews in his arm shuddering, he reached out with the other, grabbed the bottle and sucked at it with the rapture of a drunk. Most of the wine haemorrhaged from a hole in his throat staining the tattered remnants of his shirt, soaking the ground over which he walked. He passed the bottle back.
The revelry continued. His mother took each undead thing in a coital grip, returning to the profession that had soured her life. She rocked and shuddered with a mad and utterly senseless passion; the cold, mud-limned lust of the dead.
Yossard shook his head, trying to drive the images out. His attempts were futile. Every time he blinked, they rushed back and filled his mind's eye with dreadful clarity.
"Enough," he said at last. "I have had enough!"
It could not be true; it was just in his head. But he had to know. He judged the distance between their cart and his own, then stared back at the slowly crumbling edge.
If he ran -- and it would not need to be fast -- he could at the very least get close enough have a good look and be back before even half the distance between the edge and his cart crumbled away. If he ran.
There was no time for explanation, he had no energy for that. He stopped, let the cart down and ran. Marisen screamed.
"Don't leave me! DON'T. LEAVE. ME. HERE."
Such pitiful cries. They cut to the core of his gut, sickened him. However, Yossard ignored it. He had to find out and touch with his own eyes the source of his madness.
The orgy grew wilder. Everyone was trying to get at her, to take her at once. Her dead lips stretched with grim and mindless ecstasy.
He ran and he ran. The cart grew no nearer, though Marisen's screams became ever distant. He ran, until he almost fell, then stopped. For a moment he stood panting, staring at his torment, sweat-stung eyes straining, but unable to make out its occupants.
Unless he closed his eyes, then it was all too clear.
Finally he turned his gaze from the cart, looking down. What he saw there caught the breath in his chest and turned it to spurs of ice. At his feet was a puddle; a small pool of something the colour of wine. He bent down and touched it. The wine clung thickly to his fingers. He brought it to his lips. Blood.
He laughed, once, softly to himself and turned back. Marisen needed him.
"Closer," Marisen whispered, his face bone pale, the whites of his eyes blue, his teeth clackering.
"Closer. I don't want to die."
Blood washed against his leg and the sight made Yossard shudder.
"We already have," Yossard said and with a great groan began to pull the cart forward, the edge less than a foot behind, the other cart an aeon ahead.
The celebration was ending. The dead finished their bleak lovemaking. They wine was corked. Clothes straightened. Yossard's mother gave each of her companions a soft, somewhat professional, peck on the cheek. The dead lay back to sleep. His father picked up pace.
Just a little faster, but it was enough.
Yossard looked ahead and realised that the cart was disappearing, shrinking away into the distance. Even his enemies were deserting him.
"No," he groaned. "You can't do this to me."
He tried to catch up, but could not, his energy spent. At last he stopped. The cart was no more than a tiny shadow on the distant edge of the trail.
"Please, I don't want to die," Marisen moaned.
Yossard turned around and grinned weakly.
"Sorry," he mouthed, too tired to speak; to say how much he had loved. Even now he loved.
He staggered to the rear of the cart and picked up his friend. There was no weight to him he'd bled that out all day. Marisen moaned. Yossard's eyes stung with tears as, gently, he kissed his friend's lips.
He stumbled towards the edge, gripping Marisen tightly. For the first time since stepping on the trail, he met no resistance. It was easy. As easy as the snapping of an old man's neck.
Marisen's eyes widened with terror. Yossard, couldn't meet his gaze. He turned his head, staring over his shoulder. The distant cart was gone now. He closed his eyes to nothing but the red-rimmed night of his lids. In that ruddy darkness he found the edge, his legs kicking out into air.
They fell for a very long time.
First Published Electric Wine 1999