Agris squinted at the sun, the rictus that passed for a smile on his battered face making him seem almost a corpse himself.
Leos looked down on the two withered bodies by the side of the dirt track, flaking skin stretched and taut enough to see the white of bone beneath. In places the skin was torn, knuckles and cheekbones poking through. He scratched at his whiskers.
“In my expert opinion, I’d say: almost definitely.”
Leos had seen his fair share of the dead. He’d come across pretty much every representation of humanity cold and still at one point or another. Each one had been a lesson in his ongoing education on the theme of The World Doesn’t Give a Shit. But something about this pair bothered him especially.
It wasn’t that they were probably a young couple with no more than two score years between them. Nor the way they had died side by side, the boy’s arm over the girl’s back, perhaps comforting her towards the end. And it wasn’t the way their skin was powdery and pale, stark against the yellow and grey of their exposed teeth and erupted bone; though that was bad enough. After a moment he had it.
“They still have their eyes.”
Agris turned from his contemplation of the sky and stretched out his neck, the cracking of his bones making Leos wince. The big man looked down at the bodies for the first time, a long look that suggested some deep thinking.
When no words of wisdom seemed forthcoming from his partner, Leos nudged him in the right direction.
“These lands are full of scavengers, ‘Gris. Why would they graze the flesh and not take the eyes? The eyes always go first. Caws, rats, grass hogs – they all love eyes. Remember when you almost lost one that time the bailiffs were after us, sleeping with your eyes open? Caw almost pecked it out.”
Agris nodded happily at the memory. “True, true.”
“They must have been in the sun for ages, from the state of the skin. Seems odd they have any flesh left.”
The two men stood in silent observation for a moment longer, then Leos felt his interest begin to wane. He turned back to the road. It was still a long way to Pit Town on foot, and soon the day would be too hot for walking.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s find a decent stand of tar trees and rest up. If I don’t eat some smoked grass hog soon I’ll forget how awful it tastes.”
Leos had wandered a dozen paces before he realised Agris wasn’t following. His hulking frame was hunched over the roadside dead, brow furrowed and nose held almost to the milky flesh of the boy’s arm. Leos watched in fascinated horror as he gave a long, hard sniff.
“Gods, ‘Gris! What are you doing?”
Agris slipped a stiletto out of one of his boots and slid it into the withered limb, prying up the skin. A small cloud of dry white flakes drifted into the air.
“I’ve seen this before. Before.” Agris’s face spasmed, and Leos waited for the trembling to subside. His partner had an impressive selection of physical and vocal tics, and Leos had learned patience with them a long time ago. Agris’s fighting prowess was worth having to watch him gurn away whilst repeating himself half the time.
Finally Agris drew in a breath. “These bodies are fresh.”
“’Gris, the flesh is half-gone, and the skin–”
“It’s milk-rot. I told you, I’ve seen, seen it before. A sickness. Saw a whole town dying… from it, once.”
Leos knew better than to ask. Agris had some kind of troubled past that he never really spoke about, unless you counted garbled screaming during his night terrors. It was better to take what nuggets he offered and never dig for more.
“Milk-rot? Never heard of it.”
“It kills the skin and makes the bones brittle. The dead and dying look wasted, and half-rotted. That explains the eyes – animals are smart, smart. This pair wouldn’t taste good.”
“Shit.” Leos’s guts gave a shiver and his arse clenched up tight. “Can we catch it?”
“Not, not from the dead.” Agris stood and slowly licked his stiletto, his big red tongue wrapping around the blade. He winked at Leos and grinned. Or perhaps that was involuntary. Leos couldn’t always tell.
Leos felt vaguely nauseated. “Let’s go.”
“There’s more.” Agris pointed to the bodies again with the dagger, spittle dripping from its tip. “The wrists all have chafing, hardly any skin left, any skin. Prisoners.”
“So they escape, then get sick and die on the road? Unlucky bastards.”
“If they were on this road, they must have come from Pit Town, or nearby. Must have.”
Leos nodded. “We’d best be careful. Looks like a shitty way to go.”
Agris laughed, a shrill squeal like that of a little girl. “No worries, Leos. You get sick, I’ll put this through your heart quick as you like, quick.” He waved the stiletto. “No suffering for my friend.”
Leos shivered, despite the midday sun. “Thanks ‘Gris,” he managed. “Friends like you are hard to find.”
Agris beamed and rammed the blade back into his boot.
They continued down the road in silence.
Pit Town was even less impressive than its name suggested. From the rise overlooking the settlement, Leos could see a crossroads with just over a dozen small wooden buildings huddled around it like frightened sheep, each more dilapidated than the last. Lean cattle grazed the surrounding scrubby fields, and crude fences enclosed planted rows of what was probably dry cabbage and nut carrot. A small stream ran past the edge of the town, though there was little flow that he could see. Little sign of anything moving, in fact.
“I’ve taken shits bigger’n this place. Shits.” Agris snarled and then burst into a giggle that trilled into the still evening air. “You think he’s down there?”
Leos shrugged. “Lady Scree said he had family here, and after Pit Town there’s only dry scrub for fifty leagues at least. Unless he’s hiding up there with the miners,” he nodded towards the range of half-forested, half-cleared hills that ran to their left, “then Pit Town makes the most sense. Either way, someone may have seen him, heard from him.
“Thing is...” Leos looked at Agris for a long moment. “I can’t see any signs of people living down there. What if they’re all dead from that milk thing, like those poor bastards by the roadside? We going to find a pile of corpses, or houses full of the sick? Might be best to wait and watch.”
“We could ask them.” Agris pointed towards the settlement. Leos turned to see two figures approaching along the path. Two men, with a bedraggled dog between them.
Leos watched them near. Their clothing spoke of a poverty Leos was familiar with – tunics and trousers sewn together from odds and ends of different materials in a variety of shades of brown and grey, making a dull patchwork. Their shoes were flat sections of tar tree bark, worn smooth and tied in place with string. Either they were vagrants, or Pit Town was severely lacking in prosperity. Clothing aside, each looked very unlike the other – one tall and broad, the other short and wiry. Each carried a spear, though the taller man’s seemed to have been broken at some point in the past and was really little more than a rusty iron spike on a stick.
Leos looked down at his own scuffed and tattered clothing and wondered if he and Agris presented a similar image to others at first sight. For some reason the thought made him nervous. He caught himself fiddling with the handles of his knives, and had to force his hands to relax.
“Agris!” he hissed. Behind him he heard the rustle of cloth, followed by a satisfied grunt and spattering sound as Agris took a piss. Leos sighed. Agris began to whistle.
When the patchwork men were a couple of dozen paces away, Leos made his overture. “Good evening sirs! This Pit Town?”
The tall man shook his head. “You’re not welcome here, strangers.”
Leos turned to Agris, and was relieved to see that the big man’s hand now gripped only the hilt of his scimitar. He raised his eyebrows. “Everywhere we go, the love pours forth.”
Leos turned back to the patchwork men. “We’re looking for Tapper Drake.” The eyes of the shorter man widened just for a moment, and then narrowed again. Leos smiled. “We were told he has kin here. You kin?”
Short shook his head. “Tap left years ago. Not seen him since.” The man glanced down at the dog that stood at his feet, and Leos took a moment to study it. It was a sheepdog, well past its prime. Hair balding and matted, one eye milky white. The animal seemed awfully still and quiet. It watched Leos silently.
“You’re not welcome,” Tall said again, though he seemed almost sorry to be delivering the news. “Nothing for you in Pit Town. We’re closed to strangers.”
Leos heard Agris shift his weight and stifle a giggle. He could read his partner well, and decided to end the conversation before the pair were a patchwork of body parts rather than just clothing. “Come then, Agris. Best be looking for Tapper elsewhere!” He turned and gently pushed the big man back, and together they traipsed back along the dirt track they had spent several days traversing. Agris was muttering under his breath, but Leos knew he wouldn’t do anything stupid now. No more stupid than usual, anyway.
After a few dozen steps, Leos looked back to see the men and their dog still standing in the road, watching them leave. Short raised a hand towards him, though whether in farewell or some kind of appeal, Leos wasn’t sure. Then the pair turned and trudged slowly back towards town.
The sheepdog stood for long moment, watching, and then it too turned and began to trot away.
There were no lights from the buildings. Pit Town was as dark as the grave, and Leos and Agris crept unobserved around the small houses, listening at doors and peering through gaps in the shutters. Every house was deserted.
A sliver of moonlight escaped the clouds and the pair exchanged wry nods. Hours before, they had covered their clothes, skin and hair with ash and blackened their blades with tar tree sap. It all seemed a bit unnecessary now.
“I suppose we’ll be next.”
Leos and Agris both froze at the voice, which seemed to be coming from one of the larger buildings at the heart of the settlement. Together they sidled down the side of the building, finally coming to a stepped wooden frontage that led up to the main door. On the road in front were two dark shapes that Leos found hard to discern for a time, until the clouds shifted and the town was drenched in the light of the full moon for an instant.
Two men, sitting on the hard ground and sharing a flagon: Tall and Short, the welcome party. Leos looked up at the entrance to the building. Above it swung a shingle on which someone had drawn a white pick-axe and added the words ‘The Miners Resst’. An inn, Leos supposed.
“The others will be back soon.” Tall leaned towards short and dropped his voice a little, though he was clearly well into his cups. “Young Scratch will bring back the miners in a few days, and she’ll have others to… work with. We’re no use, she told us that.”
“Never been so happy to be useless,” agreed Short. “Still scares the shit out of me though. Where did she come from? What does she want?”
“Touched by the gods,” said Tall. “You saw. Dead lizards walking around, half-rotted. Scratch’s old sheep hound, too. Never seen the like.” He took the flagon. “Once they’re back, we run.”
Short nodded. “I’ve a cart all set in the stables. Enough food to get us to Promise Heights. I ain’t ending up like that poor bastard in there.” He waved behind him at the inn. “I wonder what those two lads wanted with him. They looked serious.”
“Trouble, no doubt.” Tall hawked and spat. “Been enough of that since she turned up. We’re best out of it.”
“Aye. You think young Linya and Rood made it?”
“She’d already given ‘em the rot, set to work on ‘em. If they made it more than a few leagues I’d be surprised.”
A silence descended. Leos watched the pair for a moment, thinking about what he’d heard and wondering where their dog was. Nowhere nearby presumably, or it would’ve sniffed Agris out long ago.
Leos motioned to Agris, and the two of them retreated back down the side of the building to the rear, where the back door was partially hidden by several old barrels.
“Now what, now?”
“Well,” said Leos, “It sounds like Drake might be in the inn.” He paused. “Probably with someone dangerous, and possibly in a bad state.” He sighed. “I suppose we’d better go get him, if we want to get paid. Lady Scree needs her information. You got your picks?”
Agris winked and pulled a finger-length piece of metal from his pocket. His meaty paw jabbed the pick inside the lock and then with surprising delicacy he began to wiggle it around, tongue poking out with concentration. Moments later the lock clicked, and Agris retreated with a flourish, leaving Leos to open the door and creep into the inn.
He found himself in a dark narrow corridor lined with doors. At the end, a door stood ajar, and Leos could see a faint glow through the opening. He gently eased his blackened dirk from its sheath and moved forwards, feet apart and weight spread as evenly as possible, hoping that none of the floorboards would creak.
He was half way to the door when Agris galumphed into the inn behind him, sounding like a pony trying to kick its way out of a barrel.
Leos winced and rushed forwards, giving up all attempt at stealth. Springing through the door, he came upon a scene that made little sense.
The main room of the inn had been cleared, all the tables and benches piled around the edges, and in the middle stood a naked man, held upright by ropes lashed around his wrists that led up to rings set in the ceiling timbers. A circle of candles on the floor covered him in jaundiced light. The man’s skin was white and thin, and the bones of his knees and elbows had torn through it. He seemed barely conscious and was swaying, drool dangling from his bottom lip, eyes half open. Across one eye there were three long pale scars; marks described by Lady Scree herself.
Leos and Agris shared a glance. Tapper Drake.
At his feet was the mangy sheepdog they had seen on the outskirts of Pit Town. It sat staring up at Drake, and at first Leos thought that a leash or rope hung from its muzzle, but then he realised that its jaw bone was gone, and it was the dog’s tongue dangling free.
Slowly it turned to regard Leos, and he started as a voice came out of the shadows.
“Oh. You came anyway.”
A small girl emerged from the corner of the room, barefoot and clothed in a faded grey dress. Leos would have guessed her age at around thirteen or fourteen, though her face was lined and streaked with dirt, so he couldn’t be sure. Her eyes were a smoky white and restless in their sockets, and he knew she was blind.
Agris growled and slid his scimitar from its scabbard, but Leos raised a halting hand.
The girl remained quite still. “I’m not sure I can use you, but you came anyway. That’s going to be a problem.” The dog bobbed its head as if in agreement, tongue flailing.
“What is this?” Leos peered around the gloom in search of anyone else, but there were only the benches, the tables, the candles, the shadows, the dog, the girl and the drooling wreckage of Tapper Drake. “Who are you?”
“Mist,” said the girl. “The mercies called me Mist, back at the sanctuary. They said the fog brought me to them as a baby.”
“What’s happened to him?” Leos nodded at Drake, and the dog turned to look before returning its attention once more to Leos.
“The hills here are sacred, and the people of these lands are their children, growing in their shadow. They are more attuned to my Art than most.” Both girl and dog closed their eyes for a long moment before Mist continued. “And yet still I can’t bring them back like the animals. Even using the rot to prepare them. People are so difficult. I’m getting better, though.”
“Lych charmer,” whispered Agris. Leos thought he heard a touch of respect and admiration in his partner’s voice.
Mist smiled. “Yes, I have heard myself called that. I can bring animals back, and when I do, I can see through their eyes.” She barked a laugh. “The gods are hard but fair with their gifts. They gave me no eyes but let me use many others.”
“I’m not sure that’s a healthy pastime for a young girl,” said Leos doubtfully. He still held his dirk but was unsure what to do with it. Where was this going? Back to basics, he decided. “Anyway, I don’t really care about all that. We came for him.” He waved the blade in Drake’s direction.
“He’s busy,” said Mist, moving to stand beside the dog. “Until the others arrive, he is my last subject.”
“Why bring them back?” asked Agris in a low voice that made Leos’s stomach knot.
Mist looked confused. “Why not? It’s what I do. Why does the painter paint, the sculptor sculpt, the killer kill? Because that’s their purpose.” She pointed at Drake. “This is mine.”
Agris stepped forwards, scimitar positioned across his body. “Causing others to suffer?”
Mist sneered. “You’ve caused your fair share, I’m sure.”
Leos nodded. “Can’t argue with that. But we need him. Alive.”
On an unspoken cue he and Agris moved as one, Leos towards the girl and Agris towards Drake. Mist snarled and raised her hands. Leos felt a sharp tightness in his chest, as if a heavy weight had been placed upon it.
A strangled scream from outside stopped everyone. Leos felt the pain subside and backed away, sucking in air, eyes fixed on the door to the street.
“What? No, wait!” Something banged hard against the door, and whoever was protesting outside fell silent. Leos and Agris shared a meaningful look. They both know the sound of things turning to shit when they heard it. Together they edged towards the door they had entered by.
The door handle turned, stopped, and then the door burst inwards, two figures rushing into the room. They looked nightmarish, tattered and torn and horribly pale. The roadside lovers, Linya and Rood. Leos couldn’t believe how fast they moved, especially given their very literal lack of vitality, and both he and Agris stared in shock as Rood ran a knife through Tapper Drake’s chest, while Linya leapt at Mist. The girl wore an expression of both joy and surprise as the dead woman bore her down, and Leos heard her cry “It worked! But I can’t see– “ before Linya’s blade started to rise and fall.
“Run!” shrieked Leos, but Agris was already charging, scimitar whipping at the man’s head. Rood stepped backwards but not far enough, and the curved blade cored a groove in his face that almost split his skull in two.
Leos cursed and rushed at Linya, knife in each hand, running them through her chest, momentum carrying her back against the wall. The blades jammed hard into the timbers and she was pinned. Leos lurched back before her flailing hands could reach him and turned to Agris, who was busy hacking the limbs off Rood, though the separate parts still writhed pitifully.
Linya spat and hissed, tugging against the knives, though they held fast. Her words seemed garbled but Leos thought he could make some of them out. In particular the phrase ‘pair of bastards’.
He crossed to Mist. The girl’s dress was ripped and sodden with blood, her throat gouged open. But there was a twisted smile on her face. Leos supposed she had died happy, or at least as happy as anyone could be whilst being repeatedly stabbed.
Agris joined him. “Talented,” he said. “But misguided. With a proper mentor...” Then he shrugged, and nodded at Drake. “Not gonna get... anything for Lady Scree now, anything.”
Leos looked at Tapper Drake’s dangling corpse for a long moment. Not a nice way to go, despite the man’s odious character and history of botched assassination attempts on important and ruthless people. The sheep hound lay next to Drake, looking like it had died days ago.
He stood before the woman, still squirming against the wall. “Can you understand me, Linya?”
A pause, low hissing. “Yes.”
“Why come back? To this place.”
“All is rage and hate. Here. Now.”
Leos nodded sadly. “But you remember your life?”
“Yes. Some.” Her eyes drifted to Rood’s dismembered body. “I remember him.”
She shook her head.
Leos turned. “Agris. Get a bedsheet and some rope. And bring in the guards. They’ll be just outside the door I expect. If they’re still clinging to life, give ‘em a push. I’ll see what supplies I can rustle up.”
As the sun rose they left Pit Town behind. Smoke rose into the sky from the burning inn. It had seemed the cleanest way to end things. Ash on the wind. The returning miners wouldn’t know what had happened, and that was for the best.
Agris led a donkey pulling an old cart, both of which they had found in a stable. The cart had been laden with bags of food and a few farming tools, just as Short had described. Now most of the supplies were slung on Leos’s back, and the cart held the wrapped and bound body of Tapper Drake, the smell wafting in the breeze already starting to become offensive.
Agris wrinked his nose. “You sure this is a good idea, Leos?”
Leos shrugged. “Whatever the lych child did, it worked for the roadside lovers. Might be it’ll work for young Tapper.”
Agris grunted. “Maybe we should have just kept the head.”
“No-one knows how this works, ‘Gris. Can a dead mouth talk without a pair of dead lungs? These are the mysteries of life, I suppose. Or death. Or whatever is in between.”
When, less than a league further on, Tapper started thrashing and cursing inside his wrappings, Leos couldn’t help but grin. “By the gods, I’m a clever bastard.”
Agris snorted. “Let’s hope he remembers who hired him, or we still… might not get paid.”
“Even if he doesn’t, I’m sure someone would pay for a genuine reanimated corpse,” said Leos. “Pay well. Can’t be many of ‘em knocking around.”
“Money for us, and only a half-dozen dead this time, dead,” said Agris, baring his rictus grin again. “We’re getting better at this.” The big man dropped back and began chatting to Tapper, trying to start some kind of conversation.
Leos sighed and turned his face into the wind. It was going to be a long walk back to Lady Scree.
©December 2016 Rob Francis
Rob Francis is a British writer and academic. He has publish numerous non-fiction works. His story "A Fine Bounty" appeared in Swords & Sorcery in November of 2015. His fiction has also been seen in numerous other publications including Everyday Fiction and SpekLit.