· Welcome to Schlock! the new webzine for science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Vol 2, Issue 14
12 February 2012
Schlock! is an exciting new weekly webzine dedicated to short stories, flash fiction, serialised novels and novellas within the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror. We publish new and old works of pulp sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, dark fantasy and gothic horror. If you want to read quality works of schlock fantasy, science fiction or horror, Schlock! is the webzine for you!
For details of previous editions, please go to the Archive.
Schlock! Webzine is always willing to consider new science fiction, fantasy and horror short stories, serials, graphic novels and comic strips, reviews and art. Feel free to submit fiction, articles, art or links to your own site to firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will also review published and self-published novels, in both print and digital editions. Please contact the editor at the above email address for further details.
The stories, articles and illustrations contained on this website are copyright © to the respective authors and illustrators, unless in the public domain.
This week's cover illustration is "Multiverse Transatlanticeeee" by Gonzalo Canedo. Cover design by C Priest Brumley.
Editorial by Gavin Chappell
C Priest Brumley's THE SLICER CHRONICLES - The Stolen Other by C Priest Brumley - "Time to wake up, David. Schedule dictates you must wake up now."... SCIENCE FICTION
Days of High Adventure: Kings of the Night by Robert E Howard - Bran Mak Morn's forces battle the hated Roman invaders... SWORD AND SORCERY
Ayame's Love - Part Two by Thomas C Hewitt - Anton's business was supply and depart.... EPIC POEM
A Night With Angeline by John L Campbell - The thing inside squirmed squirmed in fitful half-sleep.... HORROR
Amlodi by Gavin Chappell - The savage, barbaric, original story of Hamlet... MYTHOLOGY
40 Miles South of Clark County by Todd Nelsen - John awoke in the cab of his truck, miles from home. He had no memory of what had happened... HORROR
The House of Skulls - Part One by Gavin Chappell - Zombie apocalypse in Ancient Africa... FANTASY/HORROR
Schlock! Classic Serial: Varney the Vampire: Part Forty-Three ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest. Before Twilight... before Nosferatu ... before Dracula... there was Varney... GOTHIC HORROR
Schlock! Classic Serial: Brigands of the Moon (Part 38) by Ray Cummings - The final, gripping episode... SPACE OPERA
More trouble at t' mill this week: Schlock! went offline again on Wednesday. ‘Transaction declined,’ was the explanation given by our web hosts. I went down to the bank and asked why. ‘We don’t know anything about it,’ they said. ‘The problem must be at the other end.’ I made another attempt to pay, which was again declined. Then I was rung up by an unearthly robot voice that asked endless security questions before finally allowing me to pay the web host. Turned out it was the bank’s fraud prevention programme blocking my payments. Not content with annihilating the global economy, now the bankers pick on Schlock! So this is how the future’s meant to feel...
All’s well that ends well, and this week we’ve got some great new stories from Todd Nelsen, John L. Campbell, and C Priest Brumley. On the cover, we’re also featuring the artwork of talented fantasy artist Gonzalo Canedo: born in A Coruna, Spain, now living in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he studies Video Production, Media Technology and Creative Industries: Television and Art. Asked about his style and influences he told me that “they are multiple as my personality” but I know that he is influenced by Comte de Lautreamont, Joel-Peter Witkin, Attila Csihar, Einsturzende Neubaten and Alejandro Jodorowsky. You can find more about Gonzalo on his website: www.canedo.weebly.com.
Coming to a close this week are Robert E Howard’s Kings of the Night and Ray Cumming’s space opera Brigands of the Moon. Thomas C Hewitt’s epic Ayame’s Love continues. I’ve contributed another retelling from Norse legend; the story of Amlodi, known in English literature as Hamlet. I also begin The House of Skulls, a novella set in a fictional empire of pre-colonial Africa beset by zombie warlords.
THE SLICER CHRONICLES:
The Stolen Other by C. Priest Brumley
"Time to wake up, David. Schedule dictates you must wake up now."
"I heard you, Dumbass! Go the fuck away, will ya? I'm off today, for Christ sake."
"Time to wake up, David. Schedule dictates you must wake up now."
"I HEARD YOU, DUMBASS! I. AM. OFF. TO. DAY. DOES THAT FUCKING COMPUTE?"
"Time to wake up, David. Schedule dictates you must wake up now."
"Jesus fucking Christ, it never ends! What time is it, even?"
"It is precisely nine-fourteen in the morning. You are fourteen minutes behind schedule, David."
My legs feel like lead as they swing over the side of the bed, feet dragging across the short-set carpet that seems to be in every damn room save for my palatial bathroom. I heft myself up; despite not weighing much, my muscles can't carry much due to inactivity. Might be time to get a gym membership.
Cloud, my Pomeranian, runs into the room, yipping to go out. I reach down to stroke his fur, scratching behind his ears and on top of his head. Hmm, fur's a bit long. Probably about time for a grooming. The phone was in my hand before my conscience knew what I was doing, and had the groomer's number buzzing in my ear shortly after.
Three tones, followed by the message: "We're sorry, but your phone can not complete your call at this time. Please hang up, and try again later." I follow the instructions and hang up, then go about my morning routine, ending up back at my bed ten minutes later. The phone turned back on with a chirp, and I tried the groomer's number once more, only to get the same three tones and automated message.
Huh. This is odd. Maybe he's still asleep?
I press the red button on my right temple and wait for the Virtual Interface to load, submitting to the involuntary closing of my eyes and load times and sitting back down during the wait. Fifteen seconds later, my library awaits, massive shelves piled high with memories stored as books. I don't bother with reviewing yesterday; instead walking to the end of the dark paneled room and out into the hallway of people I'm closest to. The groomer is ten doors down on the right. The walk takes seconds, virtual feet gliding over the realistic digital texturing on the floor. I reach for the gilded doorknob to even see if he's awake.
And his door is locked. Well, don't that beat all?
I try to open it several times, punching, kicking, shoulder-ramming. Nothing. I don't think he's dead; I saw him yesterday on my supply run. And I know for a fact the man doesn't have dementia, because the guy's only 42. Fuck me running.
After an internal debate I decide to call on Kyra, my counterpart in this sector and an unbelievable woman to boot. Today's her usual day to take care of situations that pop up. Walking back to the beginning of my hallway, first door on the left, marked "Kyra Marston." I turn the handle.
What the hell is happening? Kyra shouldn't be locked. Of all people, Kyra's the last to be--
A sneaking suspicion rolled over my being, and I turned around, trying the door behind me, marked "Deanne Sutton."
Locked, too. What the hell is going on? Thoughts fly through my head, connecting the dots, trying to figure out the sequence of events, putting the details together.
Then, the light bulb goes off. The resulting revelation scares me to my core.
I've been firewalled. I don't know how, but someone has firewalled me, locking me out of the NeuNet. Which means my door is locked to everyone else. Which means Kyra will know, and Kyra's quick to jump to conclusions, arrest, or execute. Is she already en route? Phone's not working and I'm locked out of the NeuNet. Out of options, it seems.
Fuck. I need to run. Now. No time.
The red button on my temple went in without a hint of hesitation, allowing my eyes to open and depositing me in the real world. I threw on an old pair of blue jeans and a black t-shirt, followed by my trusty belt and old trainers. Next, I ran around the apartment like a fool, gathering up a few personal effects and throwing them en mass into an army-green duffel bag sitting on my bed. Cloud's barks follow me from room to room, begging for attention he wasn't going to get. Clothing, deodorant, jacket, wallet, gun, done. The bag zipped up with ease, and with a practiced motion it was over my shoulder and on its way out the door. One last stop to affix the leash to Cloud's collar, and with a snap of the wrist, I was off and running.
The keycard locked the door behind me and set the alarm, three loud chirps reverberating down the hallway and ushering me along the way. I didn't know where I was going, but I knew I just had to GO. But where to? Kyra was almost certainly already on the way, and her by-the-books demeanor would have me eliminated or turned in before I could explain. I could try Hector, Chief Slicer for my region. Again, very by-the-book, but he'd be more prone to understanding. He'll have to do.
I turn left and walk down the sidewalk, Cloud ushering me along in his wake. The old-fashioned rope leash I have him on was pulled taut more than once as we went, pulling him from the myriad of interesting smells he encountered on our way to our first stop: The bank.
The walk took fifteen minutes on a regular day, but we arrived in twenty after stopping for a slice at the corner pizzeria (not as good as my usual Take-N-Bake, but it does in a pinch). The heavy oak doors opened with a massive creak, enveloping us in a blast of chilled stale air, bringing about a cavalcade of memories I fought hard to suppress. Heads turned my way, disapproving at my appearance and the presence of Cloud. I didn't care, holding my head high and proceeding to an open service cubicle. The attendant sniffed with dismay, leering at Cloud as I took a seat across from him and setting my left hand on the table.
"I need to withdraw everything from my account. Now."
The accountant's eyebrows raised. "Really? And is there a reason for this, or--?"
My anger flared, hatred etched across every line and divot on my face. "Listen here, douchecanoe, I don't need a reason to pull my account, do I? That information is none of your damn business. I. Want. Every. Fucking. Thing. From. My. Account. NOW!" I pressed my face close to his on the last note, spittle covering his face from the exclamation. He wiped his face with a tissue from a nearby box and tossed it into a waste bin under his desk, hands slow to come up and trembling from the near-confrontation.
"Yes sir. Hand, please?"
My left hand, already on the table before me, flipped palm up. The attendant pulled a scan gun and pressed it to the meaty part of my palm by my thumb, pulling the trigger and reading the information from the subdermal microchip located there. The computer dinged once, confirming my identity and bringing up my account information. The attendant blinked once, and turned to me with a quizzical look.
"Um, sir? It says here your account balance reads Twenty-Three Thousand, Two Hundred and Eighty-Nine American Dollars, Seventy-Five cents. Are you sure you want to pull all of that out? That seems an awful lot!"
My anger bubbled once more. I've been here too long already. "Yes, I'm sure. Give me everything from my account in paper. Now!" I shouted in desperation. The attendant slammed his hands in front of him, jumped up, and ran from his desk, running to the paper currency depository in the back of the bank. A sense of unease began growing over me. Something was wrong here. I reached down and scratched Cloud behind the ears while I waited, more for giving my hands something to do than anything else. His head turned up to me, grateful for the affection.
The bank doors opened. The tell-tale clicking of stiletto heels on marbleized floor. A whiff of floral perfume.
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. She found me. Kyra's here.
I duck down in the cubicle, enough to keep my head below desk level. Cloud curls up by my folded knee and lays down, face alert and pointed at the entryway. Holding my breath as the click clack of Kyra's favorite shoes grows closer, growing dizzier by the second, sound getting louder, stopping outside of the cubicle, Cloud inching closer to the door, ready to attack for his owner and--
"David. Get up. Now."
"David, you need to get up. Now. Come on, you're in trouble." Her voice, a low rasp that sounds of bourbon and cigarettes on a good day with the accent of a true Texan, was low and urgent-- too low for making an arrest. I poke my head up with caution, seeing her short frame, voluptuous hips, large chest and curly black hair, all thrown together in a nondescript black business suit. Staring into her gray eyes, full of compassion and grace. My mother, reincarnated.
I raise myself from the ground with a measure of difficulty, upsetting Cloud from his settled position. Kyra's hand was already out, waiting to help pull me up. I accepted the offer, groaning from the strain of the movement, and took up my duffel bag from the second chair in the cubicle.
"What do you mean, I'm in trouble, Kyra? Do you know something I don't?" Her smile wavered, confirming the unease that had been growing since the attendant's departure. "Dammit. You're right, we need to go. How long ago?"
"He pressed the emergency button right before he left for the back, I think. In the last couple of minutes, at least. Did you try to access your account?"
"Yeah, went to empty it. I think I'm firewalled, Kyra. I need to figure out what the fuck's going on."
Kyra's expression hardened. "He lied to you. Your account's locked, David. Police are on their way."
"Shit!" I bent down and grabbed Cloud's leash, eliciting another grunt in the process. My thoughts fogged as information hit home, and I turned to Kyra with a snap of the neck.
"My place. Outskirts, in Old Metairie. Hector's there already, and you'll get a full briefing of the situation upon arrival. Got everything?"
"Everything I need, 'cept my dignity. Let's go." I started to head for the door, but Kyra's hand shot out and grasped my jacket sleeve before I took a full step.
"Hold it, cowboy. Cops'll be here any damn second. I need to get you out with me, not them. Got any ideas?"
My brain pulled one up quick. "Grab your gun, put it to my back. They ask, you arrested me on slicer business, 'kay? That should work, I think."
Her face told me what a moron I was, and her tone implied the same. "I know you're still kind of green, but you're an idiot, ya know that?"
"Why? What's wrong with that plan?"
"If we make an arrest, we have to turn you in to the first law enforcement we come across, jackass. Do you remember anythin' from your damn trainin'? Your plan'll gift wrap you for 'em!"
"Fuck. You're right. I got nothing else, Kyra. You still drawing a blank?"
"Yup. Sure you got nothin'?"
"Nothing, unless you got a stormtrooper outfit, a wookie costume, and some metal cuffs."
"Yep." I glanced at the door, anticipation tinting my perception. "Damn it. We need something, Kyra. Anything."
"Well, the only thing I can say is we walk out. If cops're there, you're fucked and Hector and I'll post bail. They're not, we haul ass to my car, deal?"
"That the best you got?"
"Only thing I can think of, yeah."
My palms sweated from adrenaline. Heart bursting, mind racing. Do or die time.
"Let's do it."
Kyra and I walked side by side to the doors at the far end of the hall, both sweating from the anticipation of impending action. Her left hand held my right in a sign of solidarity, and her occasional glimpses at me from the corner of her eye showed the fear far more than the rest of her body language. The dark doors were just ahead, an arm's length away.
Kyra turned to me before we could open the door, pulled my head down the eight inches difference between us, and kissed me lightly on the lips.
"Good luck, David."
I gulped and nodded, wondering in the back of my head what the hell had just happened. We both turned as one to the doors, put our arms out, and pushed.
A few disparate cars and trucks littered the small parking lot, with no sight of police presence anywhere. I let loose the breathe I hadn't even known I was holding and immediately drew another, the crisp fall air filling my being with a sense of optimism. Kyra squeezed my hand once and pulled, leading me to a plain, outdated truck parked a few spots down from the door on the right. We jogged lightly, Cloud racing to keep up with his short legs, and made it to the truck in seconds. A flick of my shoulder had the bag in the truck bed, and a quick bend and scoop had the Pomeranian in my arms.
Kyra's keys unlocked the truck a moment later. The truck was big, but not so big as to require a runner to get in, and the hop inside was mercifully short. Cloud skittered around on my lap as the seat belt went on, and with a twist of her wrist and a dash of Hendrix, we drove off.
In the rearview mirror, we saw the police lights turn into the bank's parking lot.
Nick of time.
KINGS OF THE NIGHT by Robert E Howard
“And the two wild peoples of the north
Stood fronting in the gloam,
And heard and knew each in his mind
A third great sound upon the wind,
The living walls that hedge mankind,
The walking walls of Rome.”
The sun slanted westward. Silence lay like an invisible mist over the valley. Cormac gathered the reins in his hand and glanced up at the ridges on both sides. The waving heather which grew rank on those steep slopes gave no evidence of the hundreds of savage warriors who lurked there. Here in the narrow gorge which widened gradually southward was the only sign of life. Between the steep walls three hundred Northmen were massed solidly in their wedge-shaped shield-wall, blocking the pass. At the tip, like the point of a spear, stood the man who called himself Kull, king of Valusia. He wore no helmet, only the great, strangely worked head-band of hard gold, but he bore on his left arm the great shield borne by the dead Rognar; and in his right hand he held the heavy iron mace wielded by the sea-king. The Vikings eyed him in wonder and savage admiration. They could not understand his language, or he theirs. But no further orders were necessary. At Bran's directions they had bunched themselves in the gorge, and their only order was--hold the pass!
Bran Mak Morn stood just in front of Kull. So they faced each other, he whose kingdom was yet unborn, and he whose kingdom had been lost in the mists of Time for unguessed ages. Kings of darkness, thought Cormac, nameless kings of the night, whose realms are gulfs and shadows.
The hand of the Pictish king went out. “King Kull, you are more than king--you are a man. Both of us may fall within the next hour--but if we both live, ask what you will of me.”
Kull smiled, returning the firm grip. “You too are a man after my own heart, king of the shadows. Surely you are more than a figment of my sleeping imagination. Mayhap we will meet in waking life some day.”
Bran shook his head in puzzlement, swung into the saddle and rode away, climbing the eastern slope and vanishing over the ridge. Cormac hesitated: “Strange man, are you in truth of flesh and blood, or are you a ghost?”
“When we dream, we are all flesh and blood--so long as we are dreaming,” Kull answered. “This is the strangest nightmare I have ever known--but you, who will soon fade into sheer nothingness as I awaken, seem as real to me now, as Brule, or Kananu, or Tu, or Kelkor.”
Cormac shook his head as Bran had done, and with a last salute, which Kull returned with barbaric stateliness, he turned and trotted away. At the top of the western ridge he paused. Away to the south a light cloud of dust rose and the head of the marching column was in sight. Already he believed he could feel the earth vibrate slightly to the measured tread of a thousand mailed feet beating in perfect unison. He dismounted, and one of his chieftains, Domnail, took his steed and led it down the slope away from the valley, where trees grew thickly. Only an occasional vague movement among them gave evidence of the five hundred men who stood there, each at his horse's head with a ready hand to check a chance nicker.
Oh, thought Cormac, the gods themselves made this valley for Bran's ambush! The floor of the valley was treeless and the inner slopes were bare save for the waist-high heather. But at the foot of each ridge on the side facing away from the vale, where the soil long washed from the rocky slopes had accumulated, there grew enough trees to hide five hundred horsemen or fifty chariots.
At the northern end of the valley stood Kull and his three hundred Vikings, in open view, flanked on each side by fifty Pictish bowmen. Hidden on the western side of the western ridge were the Gaels. Along the top of the slopes, concealed in the tall heather, lay a hundred Picts with their shafts on string. The rest of the Picts were hidden on the eastern slopes beyond which lay the Britons with their chariots in full readiness. Neither they nor the Gaels to the west could see what went on in the vale, but signals had been arranged.
Now the long column was entering the wide mouth of the valley and their scouts, light-armed men on swift horses, were spreading out between the slopes. They galloped almost within bowshot of the silent host that blocked the pass, then halted. Some whirled and raced back to the main force, while the others deployed and cantered up the slopes, seeking to see what lay beyond. This was the crucial moment. If they got any hint of the ambush, all was lost. Cormac, shrinking down into the heather, marveled at the ability of the Picts to efface themselves from view so completely. He saw a horseman pass within three feet of where he knew a bowman lay, yet the Roman saw nothing.
The scouts topped the ridges, gazed about; then most of them turned and trotted back down the slopes. Cormac wondered at their desultory manner of scouting. He had never fought Romans before, knew nothing of their arrogant self-confidence, of their incredible shrewdness in some ways, their incredible stupidity in others. These men were overconfident; a feeling radiating from their officers. It had been years since a force of Caledonians had stood before the legions. And most of these men were but newly come to Britain; part of a legion which had been quartered in Egypt. They despised their foes and suspected nothing.
But stay--three riders on the opposite ridge had turned and vanished on the other side. And now one, sitting his steed at the crest of the western ridge, not a hundred yards from where Cormac lay, looked long and narrowly down into the mass of trees at the foot of the slope. Cormac saw suspicion grow on his brown, hawk-like face. He half turned as though to call to his comrades, then instead reined his steed down the slope, leaning forward in his saddle. Cormac's heart pounded. Each moment he expected to see the man wheel and gallop back to raise the alarm. He resisted a mad impulse to leap up and charge the Roman on foot. Surely the man could feel the tenseness in the air--the hundreds of fierce eyes upon him. Now he was halfway down the slope, out of sight of the men in the valley. And now the twang of an unseen bow broke the painful stillness. With a strangled gasp the Roman flung his hands high, and as the steed reared, he pitched headlong, transfixed by a long black arrow that had flashed from the heather. A stocky dwarf sprang out of nowhere, seemingly, and seized the bridle, quieting the snorting horse, and leading it down the slope. At the fall of the Roman, short crooked men rose like a sudden flight of birds from the grass and Cormac saw the flash of a knife. Then with unreal suddenness all had subsided. Slayers and slain were unseen and only the still-waving heather marked the grim deed.
The Gael looked back into the valley. The three who had ridden over the eastern ridge had not come back and Cormac knew they never would. Evidently the other scouts had borne word that only a small band of warriors was ready to dispute the passage of the legionaries. Now the head of the column was almost below him and he thrilled at the sight of these men who were doomed, swinging along with their superb arrogance. And the sight of their splendid armor, their hawk-like faces and perfect discipline awed him as much as it is possible for a Gael to be awed.
Twelve hundred men in heavy armor who marched as one so that the ground shook to their tread! Most of them were of middle height, with powerful chests and shoulders and bronzed faces--hard-bitten veterans of a hundred campaigns. Cormac noted their javelins, short keen swords and heavy shields; their gleaming armor and crested helmets, the eagles on the standards. These were the men beneath whose tread the world had shaken and empires crumbled! Not all were Latins; there were Romanized Britons among them and one century or hundred was composed of huge yellow-haired men--Gauls and Germans, who fought for Rome as fiercely as did the native-born, and hated their wilder kinsmen more savagely.
On each side was a swarm of cavalry, outriders, and the column was flanked by archers and slingers. A number of lumbering wagons carried the supplies of the army. Cormac saw the commander riding in his place--a tall man with a lean, imperious face, evident even at that distance. Marcus Sulius--the Gael knew him by repute.
A deep-throated roar rose from the legionaries as they approached their foes. Evidently they intended to slice their way through and continue without a pause, for the column moved implacably on. Whom the gods destroy they first make mad--Cormac had never heard the phrase but it came to him that the great Sulius was a fool. Roman arrogance! Marcus was used to lashing the cringing peoples of a decadent East; little he guessed of the iron in these western races.
A group of cavalry detached itself and raced into the mouth of the gorge, but it was only a gesture. With loud jeering shouts they wheeled three spears length away and cast their javelins, which rattled harmlessly on the overlapping shields of the silent Northmen. But their leader dared too much; swinging in, he leaned from his saddle and thrust at Kull's face. The great shield turned the lance and Kull struck back as a snake strikes; the ponderous mace crushed helmet and head like an eggshell, and the very steed went to its knees from the shock of that terrible blow. From the Northmen went up a short fierce roar, and the Picts beside them howled exultantly and loosed their arrows among the retreating horsemen. First blood for the people of the heather! The oncoming Romans shouted vengefully and quickened their pace as the frightened horse raced by, a ghastly travesty of a man, foot caught in the stirrup, trailing beneath the pounding hoofs.
Now the first line of the legionaries, compressed because of the narrowness of the gorge, crashed against the solid wall of shields--crashed and recoiled upon itself. The shield-wall had not shaken an inch. This was the first time the Roman legions had met with that unbreakable formation--that oldest of all Aryan battle-lines--the ancestor of the Spartan regiment--the Theban phalanx--the Macedonian formation--the English square.
Shield crashed on shield and the short Roman sword sought for an opening in that iron wall. Viking spears bristling in solid ranks above, thrust and reddened; heavy axes chopped down, shearing through iron, flesh and bone. Cormac saw Kull, looming above the stocky Romans in the forefront of the fray, dealing blows like thunderbolts. A burly centurion rushed in, shield held high, stabbing upward. The iron mace crashed terribly, shivering the sword, rending the shield apart, shattering the helmet, crushing the skull down between the shoulders--in a single blow.
The front line of the Romans bent like a steel bar about the wedge, as the legionaries sought to struggle through the gorge on each side and surround their opposers. But the pass was too narrow; crouching close against the steep walls the Picts drove their black arrows in a hail of death. At this range the heavy shafts tore through shield and corselet, transfixing the armored men. The front line of battle rolled back, red and broken, and the Northmen trod their few dead underfoot to close the gaps their fall had made. Stretched the full width of their front lay a thin line of shattered forms--the red spray of the tide which had broken upon them in vain.
Cormac had leaped to his feet, waving his arms. Domnail and his men broke cover at the signal and came galloping up the slope, lining the ridge. Cormac mounted the horse brought him and glanced impatiently across the narrow vale. No sign of life appeared on the eastern ridge. Where was Bran--and the Britons?
Down in the valley, the legions, angered at the unexpected opposition of the paltry force in front of them, but not suspicious, were forming in more compact body. The wagons which had halted were lumbering on again and the whole column was once more in motion as if it intended to crash through by sheer weight. With the Gaulish century in the forefront, the legionaries were advancing again in the attack. This time, with the full force of twelve hundred men behind, the charge would batter down the resistance of Kull's warriors like a heavy ram; would stamp them down, sweep over their red ruins. Cormac's men trembled in impatience. Suddenly Marcus Sulius turned and gazed westward, where the line of horsemen was etched against the sky. Even at that distance Cormac saw his face pale. The Roman at last realized the metal of the men he faced, and that he had walked into a trap. Surely in that moment there flashed a chaotic picture through his brain--defeat--disgrace--red ruin!
It was too late to retreat--too late to form into a defensive square with the wagons for barricade. There was but one possible way out, and Marcus, crafty general in spite of his recent blunder, took it. Cormac heard his voice cut like a clarion through the din, and though he did not understand the words, he knew that the Roman was shouting for his men to smite that knot of Northmen like a blast--to hack their way through and out of the trap before it could close!
Now the legionaries, aware of their desperate plight, flung themselves headlong and terribly on their foes. The shield-wall rocked, but it gave not an inch. The wild faces of the Gauls and the hard brown Italian faces glared over locked shields into the blazing eyes of the North. Shields touching, they smote and slew and died in a red storm of slaughter, where crimsoned axes rose and fell and dripping spears broke on notched swords.
Where in God's name was Bran with his chariots? A few minutes more would spell the doom of every man who held that pass. Already they were falling fast, though they locked their ranks closer and held like iron. Those wild men of the North were dying in their tracks; and looming among their golden heads the black lion-mane of Kull shone like a symbol of slaughter, and his reddened mace showered a ghastly rain as it splashed brains and blood like water.
Something snapped in Cormac's brain.
“These men will die while we wait for Bran's signal!” he shouted. “On! Follow me into Hell, sons of Gael!”
A wild roar answered him, and loosing rein he shot down the slope with five hundred yelling riders plunging headlong after him. And even at that moment a storm of arrows swept the valley from either side like a dark cloud and the terrible clamor of the Picts split the skies. And over the eastern ridge, like a sudden burst of rolling thunder on Judgment Day, rushed the war-chariots. Headlong down the slope they roared, foam flying from the horses' distended nostrils, frantic feet scarcely seeming to touch the ground, making naught of the tall heather. In the foremost chariot, with his dark eyes blazing, crouched Bran Mak Morn, and in all of them the naked Britons were screaming and lashing as if possessed by demons. Behind the flying chariots came the Picts, howling like wolves and loosing their arrows as they ran. The heather belched them forth from all sides in a dark wave.
So much Cormac saw in chaotic glimpses during that wild ride down the slopes. A wave of cavalry swept between him and the main line of the column. Three long leaps ahead of his men, the Gaelic prince met the spears of the Roman riders. The first lance turned on his buckler, and rising in his stirrups he smote downward, cleaving his man from shoulder to breastbone. The next Roman flung a javelin that killed Domnail, but at that instant Cormac's steed crashed into his, breast to breast, and the lighter horse rolled headlong under the shock, flinging his rider beneath the pounding hoofs.
Then the whole blast of the Gaelic charge smote the Roman cavalry, shattering it, crashing and rolling it down and under. Over its red ruins Cormac's yelling demons struck the heavy Roman infantry, and the whole line reeled at the shock. Swords and axes flashed up and down and the force of their rush carried them deep into the massed ranks. Here, checked, they swayed and strove. Javelins thrust, swords flashed upward, bringing down horse and rider, and greatly outnumbered, leaguered on every side, the Gaels had perished among their foes, but at that instant, from the other side the crashing chariots smote the Roman ranks. In one long line they struck almost simultaneously, and at the moment of impact the charioteers wheeled their horses side-long and raced parallel down the ranks, shearing men down like the mowing of wheat. Hundreds died on those curving blades in that moment, and leaping from the chariots, screaming like blood-mad wildcats, the British swordsmen flung themselves upon the spears of the legionaries, hacking madly with their two-handed swords. Crouching, the Picts drove their arrows point-blank and then sprang in to slash and thrust. Maddened with the sight of victory, these wild peoples were like wounded tigers, feeling no wounds, and dying on their feet with their last gasp a snarl of fury.
But the battle was not over yet. Dazed, shattered, their formation broken and nearly half their number down already, the Romans fought back with desperate fury. Hemmed in on all sides they slashed and smote singly, or in small clumps, fought back to back, archers, slingers, horsemen and heavy legionaries mingled into a chaotic mass. The confusion was complete, but not the victory. Those bottled in the gorge still hurled themselves upon the red axes that barred their way, while the massed and serried battle thundered behind them. From one side Cormac's Gaels raged and slashed; from the other chariots swept back and forth, retiring and returning like iron whirlwinds. There was no retreat, for the Picts had flung a cordon across the way they had come, and having cut the throats of the camp followers and possessed themselves of the wagons, they sent their shafts in a storm of death into the rear of the shattered column. Those long black arrows pierced armor and bone, nailing men together. Yet the slaughter was not all on one side. Picts died beneath the lightning thrust of javelin and shortsword, Gaels pinned beneath their falling horses were hewed to pieces, and chariots, cut loose from their horses, were deluged with the blood of the charioteers.
And at the narrow head of the valley still the battle surged and eddied. Great gods--thought Cormac, glancing between lightning-like blows--do these men still hold the gorge? Aye! They held it! A tenth of their original number, dying on their feet, they still held back the frantic charges of the dwindling legionaries.
Over all the field went up the roar and the clash of arms, and birds of prey, swift-flying out of the sunset, circled above. Cormac, striving to reach Marcus Sulius through the press, saw the Roman's horse sink under him, and the rider rise alone in a waste of foes. He saw the Roman sword flash thrice, dealing a death at each blow; then from the thickest of the fray bounded a terrible figure. It was Bran Mak Morn, stained from head to foot. He cast away his broken sword as he ran, drawing a dirk. The Roman struck, but the Pictish king was under the thrust, and gripping the sword-wrist, he drove the dirk again and again through the gleaming armor.
A mighty roar went up as Marcus died, and Cormac, with a shout, rallied the remnants of his force about him and, striking in the spurs, burst through the shattered lines and rode full speed for the other end of the valley.
But as he approached he saw that he was too late. As they had lived, so had they died, those fierce sea-wolves, with their faces to the foe and their broken weapons red in their hands. In a grim and silent band they lay, even in death preserving some of the shield-wall formation. Among them, in front of them and all about them lay high-heaped the bodies of those who had sought to break them, in vain. They had not given back a foot! To the last man, they had died in their tracks. Nor were there any left to stride over their torn shapes; those Romans who had escaped the Viking axes had been struck down by the shafts of the Picts and swords of the Gaels from behind.
Yet this part of the battle was not over. High up on the steep western slope Cormac saw the ending of that drama. A group of Gauls in the armor of Rome pressed upon a single man--a black-haired giant on whose head gleamed a golden crown. There was iron in these men, as well as in the man who had held them to their fate. They were doomed--their comrades were being slaughtered behind them--but before their turn came they would at least have the life of the black-haired chief who had led the golden-haired men of the North.
Pressing upon him from three sides they had forced him slowly back up the steep gorge wall, and the crumpled bodies that stretched along his retreat showed how fiercely every foot of the way had been contested. Here on this steep it was task enough to keep one's footing alone; yet these men at once climbed and fought. Kull's shield and the huge mace were gone, and the great sword in his right hand was dyed crimson. His mail, wrought with a forgotten art, now hung in shreds, and blood streamed from a hundred wounds on limbs, head and body. But his eyes still blazed with the battle-joy and his wearied arm still drove the mighty blade in strokes of death.
But Cormac saw that the end would come before they could reach him. Now at the very crest of the steep, a hedge of points menaced the strange king's life, and even his iron strength was ebbing. Now he split the skull of a huge warrior and the backstroke shore through the neck-cords of another; reeling under a very rain of swords he struck again and his victim dropped at his feet, cleft to the breastbone. Then, even as a dozen swords rose above the staggering Atlantean for the death stroke, a strange thing happened. The sun was sinking into the western sea; all the heather swam red like an ocean of blood. Etched in the dying sun, as he had first appeared, Kull stood, and then, like a mist lifting, a mighty vista opened behind the reeling king. Cormac's astounded eyes caught a fleeting gigantic glimpse of other climes and spheres--as if mirrored in summer clouds he saw, instead of the heather hills stretching away to the sea, a dim and mighty land of blue mountains and gleaming quiet lakes--the golden, purple and sapphirean spires and towering walls of a mighty city such as the earth has not known for many a drifting age.
Then like the fading of a mirage it was gone, but the Gauls on the high slope had dropped their weapons and stared like men dazed--For the man called Kull had vanished and there was no trace of his going!
As in a daze Cormac turned his steed and rode back across the trampled field. His horse's hoofs splashed in lakes of blood and clanged against the helmets of dead men. Across the valley the shout of victory was thundering. Yet all seemed shadowy and strange. A shape was striding across the torn corpses and Cormac was dully aware that it was Bran. The Gael swung from his horse and fronted the king. Bran was weaponless and gory; blood trickled from gashes on brow, breast and limb; what armor he had worn was clean hacked away and a cut had shorn halfway through his iron crown. But the red jewel still gleamed unblemished like a star of slaughter.
“It is in my mind to slay you,” said the Gael heavily and like a man speaking in a daze, “for the blood of brave men is on your head. Had you given the signal to charge sooner, some would have lived.”
Bran folded his arms; his eyes were haunted. “Strike if you will; I am sick of slaughter. It is a cold mead, this kinging it. A king must gamble with men's lives and naked swords. The lives of all my people were at stake; I sacrificed the Northmen--yes; and my heart is sore within me, for they were men! But had I given the order when you would have desired, all might have gone awry. The Romans were not yet massed in the narrow mouth of the gorge, and might have had time and space to form their ranks again and beat us off. I waited until the last moment--and the rovers died. A king belongs to his people, and can not let either his own feelings or the lives of men influence him. Now my people are saved; but my heart is cold in my breast.”
Cormac wearily dropped his sword-point to the ground.
“You are a born king of men, Bran,” said the Gaelic prince.
Bran's eyes roved the field. A mist of blood hovered over all, where the victorious barbarians were looting the dead, while those Romans who had escaped slaughter by throwing down their swords and now stood under guard, looked on with hot smoldering eyes.
“My kingdom--my people--are saved,” said Bran wearily. “They will come from the heather by the thousands and when Rome moves against us again, she will meet a solid nation. But I am weary. What of Kull?”
“My eyes and brain were mazed with battle,” answered Cormac. “I thought to see him vanish like a ghost into the sunset. I will seek his body.”
“Seek not for him,” said Bran. “Out of the sunrise he came--into the sunset he has gone. Out of the mists of the ages he came to us, and back into the mists of the eons has he returned--to his own kingdom.”
Cormac turned away; night was gathering. Gonar stood like a white specter before him.
“To his own kingdom,” echoed the wizard. “Time and Space are naught. Kull has returned to his own kingdom--his own crown--his own age.”
“Then he was a ghost?”
“Did you not feel the grip of his solid hand? Did you not hear his voice--see him eat and drink, laugh and slay and bleed?”
Still Cormac stood like one in a trance.
“Then if it be possible for a man to pass from one age into one yet unborn, or come forth from a century dead and forgotten, whichever you will, with his flesh-and-blood body and his arms--then he is as mortal as he was in his own day. Is Kull dead, then?”
“He died a hundred thousand years ago, as men reckon time,” answered the wizard, “but in his own age. He died not from the swords of the Gauls of this age. Have we not heard in legends how the king of Valusia traveled into a strange, timeless land of the misty future ages, and there fought in a great battle? Why, so he did! A hundred thousand years ago, or today!
“And a hundred thousand years ago--or a moment agone!--Kull, king of Valusia, roused himself on the silken couch in his secret chamber and laughing, spoke to the first Gonar, saying: 'Ha, wizard, I have in truth dreamed strangely, for I went into a far clime and a far time in my visions, and fought for the king of a strange shadow-people!' And the great sorcerer smiled and pointed silently at the red, notched sword, and the torn mail and the many wounds that the king carried. And Kull, fully woken from his 'vision' and feeling the sting and the weakness of these yet bleeding wounds, fell silent and mazed, and all life and time and space seemed like a dream of ghosts to him, and he wondered thereat all the rest of his life. For the wisdom of the Eternities is denied even unto princes and Kull could no more understand what Gonar told him than you can understand my words.”
“And then Kull lived despite his many wounds,” said Cormac, “and has returned to the mists of silence and the centuries. Well--he thought us a dream; we thought him a ghost. And sure, life is but a web spun of ghosts and dreams and illusion, and it is in my mind that the kingdom which has this day been born of swords and slaughter in this howling valley is a thing no more solid than the foam of the bright sea.”
AYAME’S LOVE by Thomas C Hewitt
He reaped two small towns ninety miles apart
and separated by the ocean waves
the different language had at first been hard
but worth the effort for profits of trade
Anton’s business was supply and depart
and the exchange was always by his rates
though more and more ached the young Anton’s heart
as trinkets and jewellery so quickly fade
two small towns had fed all of his needs
and repetition had made sour his deeds
he left the first place a town called Byston
across water to Peres he then moved on
and Peres was the town where he gained the most
enough that he travelled from coast to coast
He arrived in Peres with heavy bags full
of merchandise purchased in Byston
His dull limbs ached tired from the coastal haul
and sleep was his first consideration
he made his way with each step like a yawn
to the one he told was the only one
there was one in each town, one in each port
for whom he claimed fidelity whilst gone
He arrived and found he had strength for sex
and then directly afterwards he slept
His lover Clarissa woke him next day
a look of excitement upon her face
a group of tumblers had arrived in Peres
and now he was there he could go with her
They made their arrangements to meet that night
and Anton departed to the market
where news of his goods would spread like wild fire
buyers would hit his stall like a target
and what had taken two days to arrived
departed Anton’s hands ten times as quick
He took back his earnings then to kill time
he wandered the town to spend his profit
He looked around hard but it was useless
not a single stall could sell him interest
he settled for tea and an outside seat
quiet thoughts embraced his face like a frown
which did not sit up as the man sat down
Anton was startled by a question asked
and peering over the steam of his tea
spoke with the irritation of a scratch
the knowledge the stranger sought he received
confirmation that Anton was the man
who brought all of his goods from over the sea
Anton smiled and he cynically laughed
“what is it I have that you think I need?”
“I am a tumbler and on my travels
I heard of a place where no-one quarrels
a village that hides within your home land
where feeling is placed above opinion
and I seek my peace in that dominion”
“That’s nice for you” Anton replied “but what
in this village that concerns with me?”
“Tonight’s my last performance, after that
that village it is my intent to seek
but I doubt that my search would find a lot
in a land whose tongue I don’t even speak
when I heard of you I came to the thought
that you could guide me and could also teach
the native tongue spoke in your native land
for that village lies there I understand
I can give gold in return for your help
as I should have no need for it myself”
Anton’s ennui disappeared with those words
and readily he accepted the terms
After the close of the tumblers last show
they would meet again and set on their way
Clarissa was told that he meant to go
and her body savoured for one last day
she saw in his eyes what she was not told
that he did not mean to return again
With one last embrace he parted, although
she cursed him to never forget her name
There was a uniform rain and standard grey
like a thickened mist that looked set to stay
and followed the travellers out of Peres
and only the tumbler did not despair
as they crossed the sea only to observe
that the weather was just as gloomy there.
A NIGHT WITH ANGELINE by John L Campbell
The interior of the mausoleum smelled of damp, decaying leaves, and a fine black film of mold coated the left side of Jesus. He was marble, two feet tall and standing atop a pedestal near a small stained glass window with missing panes. Despite a measure of sunlight coming through the glass, the room was cold and unpleasant, the air stirred by a foul draft coming from a black, rectangular hole in the floor. An iron door which normally sealed it was propped open to one side. Moldy stone steps descended into the hole.
Two men with spades, one holding a lantern, the other a shotgun, stood to either side looking into the darkness with wide, nervous eyes. They didn’t go down.
The stairs led to a short, low corridor which traveled several yards and opened into a chamber with cut stone walls, flagstone floor and a slightly domed ceiling. A cold breeze seeped into the room through gaps in the crooked stones. This place, too, was damp and moldy, and reeked of death. In here, a single lantern rested on the floor, casting an amber glow on the walls and on the rotting coffin at the room’s center. Two more men flanked the resting place, one in his fifties, broad and powerful looking, with a bald head and great whiskers and muttonchops, the other leaner and dark-haired.
“Sergeant Major,” said the younger man softly. His companion immediately gripped the lid with big, rough hands and tore it off the coffin, hinges coming away from rotten wood with a muffled crack as he cast the lid aside.
The thing inside squirmed in fitful half-sleep, long, pale fingers plucking at its filthy coat in little twitches, hooded eyes fluttering partially open, revealing a milky whiteness. Its mouth opened slowly in a prolonged hiss, revealing the twin, dagger-like teeth. It did not rise, though it appeared to want to.
Nathan struck at once, driving a sharpened, four foot shaft of ash into the creature’s chest, running it through. Its eyes snapped open, pinpoint pupils expanding to fill the milky orbs, and it screeched and twisted its head about, thrashing against the spear, fingers pawing desperately at the wood. Thick, black liquid bubbled from its mouth and around the wound, and it shuddered once before stiffening, then collapsing into a man-shaped pile of ash. A moment later this shape collapsed as well, spilling out of the broken casket, to be scattered across the floor by the chill breeze.
How many graves have I stood over, Nathan wondered? Thousands.
The sergeant major retrieved the lantern and gestured to the stairs, and they climbed out of the chamber together.
Lord Nathan Madison III, Earl of Westharrow, stood on the balcony overlooking Elaine’s gardens, the sky a deepening blue as the sun began its decline, the forests surrounding the estate slowly darkening. The gardens were immaculate, just as Elaine had always kept them, spending countless hours kneeling in the soft, rich earth, tending her flowers. Nathan had been particular about seeing they were maintained just as she’d left them. The powerful scent of lavender drifted from below on the late afternoon air.
At thirty-eight he was of medium build with an athletic frame, his posture erect but not overly stiff, and the way he carried himself suggested a military background. He smoked a cigar slowly, supporting himself just a bit with one hand resting on the stone railing. A cane with the silver head of a stallion leaned nearby, and as the sun descended and the autumn damp settled over the manor house, he knew he’d be needing it. His right leg ached, something he had been assured would only get worse with age.
Below, October leaves chased one another across a walkway at the edge of the garden. To Nathan they sounded like old claws scrambling up out of a stone well, and he thought about the crypt. How many graves, indeed? Both of his parents, a younger sister lost during childbirth, a younger brother in a foundry accident. Other relatives, family members of those who worked for him. His enemies. His troops, so very many of them. Geoffrey and Elaine.
His cigar smoke floated up past the eaves of the great house and he watched it rise. He’d seen plenty of smoke, too, on the field and in the camps. Had lit some of those fires himself.
An older man in the formal black of a butler softly opened the double glass doors behind him and stepped onto the balcony, standing quietly so as not to disturb the master of the house. Nathan heard him the moment he touched the door handle, and turned.
“I beg your pardon, Milord, but it is six o’clock, and your guests are scheduled to begin arriving at eight.”
“Thank you, Douglas.” Nathan crushed out the cigar in a heavy crystal ashtray on the railing and walked back into the house, carrying the cane and managing not to limp.
Several minutes later he pushed through the door of the kitchens, avoiding a young man with a tray of cutlery heading for the dining room. The place smelled delicious, a mix of sizzling meat and warm bread, and servants hurried about in their preparation. Mrs. Smyth, the chief housekeeper, called out orders in a brisk voice, as organized and obeyed as any drillmaster he’d ever had under his command. She spotted him at once, and came directly to him.
“Here now, sir, this is no place for you,” she fussed, trying to bully him back out the way he’d come.
Nathan held his ground. “Just here for my delivery, then I’ll be on my way.”
She squinted as she looked him up and down, tisking in gentle disapproval at his casual tweeds and riding boots, then fluttered her hands like a bird. “Very well,” she said, retrieving a large wicker basket from a side table, hoisting it in both hands and lugging it to him. “Mind you allow time to make yourself presentable to your guests, and don’t make poor, tired old Mrs. Smyth come looking for you.”
Nathan smiled a bit and gave her a peck on the cheek, causing her to blush and cry “Oh!” and making the other servants chuckle. “I promise,” he said.
She shooed him off with her apron, then forced down her own smile and turned back to her staff. “Move along now, you dawdlers!”
Nathan left the manor house behind as he walked down a gentle, grassy slope towards a gathering of low buildings, the garages and stables, carrying the heavy basket in one hand and his cane in the other. His leg felt about the same, and he’d found over the years that regular movement kept it from stiffening up. Of course, all that exercise exacted a toll later when he was at rest, but he’d face that opponent when it showed itself. He wasn’t one to surrender.
As evening settled over the estate, soft lamplight and a couple of electric bulbs shone from the windows of the outbuildings, and he made his way towards the brightest of these, the garage. Before he reached the door, Davis and Kealty approached from the direction of the stables, their caps in their hands. They were the two men who had accompanied the sergeant major and him on that midday business at the cemetery, both grooms on the estate.
“A word, sir?” Kealty called.
Nathan nodded and set down the basket. The two men walked as if they were schoolboys caught at some misdeed.
“Sir…” Davis started, then hesitated, unable to look at anything but his shoes.
Kealty also looked embarrassed, but was able to meet his employer’s eyes. “Sir, me and Davis…well, sir, we wanted to apologize for today. And we understand if you want to sack us, sir.”
“That’s right,” said Davis.
Nathan looked at them and raised an eyebrow.
“We know we let you down, sir. We were just…”
“We’re not cowards, sir,” said Davis.
They looked at each other, then at him. “At the mausoleum,” said Kealty. “We should’ve been down there with you and Mister Voorhes.”
Nathan put a hand on each of their shoulders, speaking quietly. “Lads, no more of this. You knew what we were looking for, and still you went into that cemetery, went into that mausoleum, opened that crypt. You did more than I’d ask of any man, and you’re as brave as any I ever commanded.”
They nodded their thanks, not entirely convinced.
“Have you told anyone about today?” Nathan asked.
Both men looked shocked. “No, sir!” said Kealty. “The missus would be up wailing at me all night about my foolishness and having kids at home, and then she’d be afraid to turn off the lights. I’d never sleep again.”
“Mine would think me drinking,” said Davis. “And much as I’d like to ask Father Kevin how God could let something like that walk the earth, I know he’d make our business everyone’s business by the morning.”
Nathan smiled. “And now you know why we didn’t bring a priest along.”
“Rest easy,” Nathan said, “you’re good men, both of you.” They stood a little taller, and Nathan picked up his basket again. “Now open that door and come inside for a bit.”
The garage was warm and smelled of oil, and under a pair of hooded bulbs sat five vehicles. There was a trio of lorries, two of them flatbeds for work around the estate and one canvas-sided for duties such as trips to market. A maroon, 1906 Austin Defiance was there for Nathan’s regular use, well maintained and clean. And at the far end under a tarp was a 1908 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, a powerful, black and silver machine which Nathan had purchased new during darker days, and which had not been driven or even started since Elaine’s death. The Earl and his two stablemen walked the length of the garage, past the vehicles, and entered a small room at the far end. Nathan didn’t even look at the Rolls.
A fire burned in a stove in the corner, keeping the October chill at bay, and a pair of lanterns rested upon a rough table around which sat several men. Their ages ranged from seventeen to fifty, and all were relaxing after a full day of labor. They wore greasy coveralls or dirty work clothes, men with grimy hands used to lives of hard work. All stood and quickly removed their caps upon Nathan’s entrance, and two of them, both in their late twenties, started to stiffen to attention. Nathan set the heavy basket on the table and waved them back to their stools, taking one himself.
“Colonel,” said Andrews, one of the men who had nearly come to attention, “don’t you have a dinner party this evening, sir?”
“I do,” came the reply, as Nathan began unpacking the basket.
“Are you lost, sir?” asked Stark, the second former soldier, seated besides Andrews.
Nathan pulled a cloth-wrapped bundle out of the basket and set it on the table, opening it to reveal a warm loaf of dark bread. “Not a bit.” The other men craned their necks to see what else might be inside, as Nathan removed sliced slabs of beef, a quarter wheel of cheese, mushrooms, a crock of soup and bowls, and two stacks of glasses.
“Mrs. Smyth prepared you boys a sample of what she’s serving tonight. It’s not on fine china and you won’t dine to violin music, but it’s the same as the proper folk,” he exaggerated the word proper, “will be stuffing themselves with.”
There were smiles all around and nods of gratitude. Last from the basket, Nathan produced a bottle of fine whiskey, its appearance greeted with sounds of respect and admiration, more for the label than their host.
Andrews immediately snatched the bottle away from Nathan and expertly uncorked it, as another mechanic lined up the glasses. “Can’t entrust such a treasure to the inexperienced hands of an officer, sir. You might drop it, and that’s a casualty we couldn’t sustain.”
One of the older men squinted an eye at the former soldier. “I’d wager his Lordship has pulled his share of corks in his life.” He winked at his employer.
“Nevertheless,” said Andrews, finishing his pour. They each took a glass and raised them. “To your health, sir.” The whiskey was finely aged and smooth, touched with hickory, and it burned pleasantly on the way down. Nathan raised his glass but did not drink, a fact which insulted none of the men gathered here. He set it back on the table, knowing it wouldn’t go to waste.
“I’d stay if I didn’t think Mrs. Smyth would come fetch me back.”
“And she would, Milord, she would,” said the older man.
They thanked him, and Nathan made his way back up towards the house, needing the cane for the climb up the gentle hill. Night was falling, and with it the temperature. Ahead, the many windows of the great manor were warm with light, and smoke from several chimneys drifted into the cooling air. A soft evening wind rustled the trees and hedges bordering Elaine’s gardens.
Nathan stopped on the stone walkway at the top of the slope and leaned on his cane. He was tired, not so much from the climb as from the day’s events, which had drained him emotionally as well as physically. Until now he hadn’t allowed himself to dwell on them, but here, alone in the dark, his mind turned to what he had done. The rotten smell of the lower mausoleum was still with him, and even the lavender in the air could not dispel it.
It had taken three years to exact his vengeance, three years to finally serve justice for Geoffrey, who would have been eight now if he’d lived. And he had found this afternoon, as he’d long suspected he would, that there was no satisfaction, no victory, no feeling of peace. He was still empty. The monster who had murdered his son was destroyed, but those he had created himself were not so easily put down.
He walked slowly along the path, looking out at the gardens in the rising moonlight, his leg a dull ache. He loved these gardens, and the good memories they held for him of Elaine, but they provoked other feelings as well; anger, regret, failure. The tip of the cane tapped a slow, hollow beat on the flagstones as he walked, passing a stone fountain where water whispered softly from a jar held by a cherub, the statuary marking the entrance to the manicured green spaces. He turned away towards a door to the house, then stopped in mid-step.
In 1900, Nathan’s unit had been encamped at the eastern edge of the British settlement in Natal. A man had managed to elude the sentries and enter the camp, easing under the edge of Nathan’s tent, moving slowly and stealthily, like a predator. The knife he’d carried had been intended for Nathan’s throat, but something had awoken him in time to reach his pistol first and blast the man into the next life. He had never really known what it was, a sound, a sense of movement in the air…. This felt like that. He knew he had nothing to fear on his own estate – or anywhere for that matter – but then hadn’t he believed that for his whole family, for Geoffrey?
Nathan turned and gripped the shaft of his cane, raising it before him. His eyes scanned the darkness, and he strained to hear. No movement, no sound other than the wind and the water in the fountain. He stayed that way for several long minutes, but the sensation didn’t return. Striking the tip of the cane onto the stones once more, he turned and went inside.
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK
AMLODI by Gavin Chappell
Geirvandill son of Odin ruled over the Jutes until his cousin Vadilgaut of the Angles defeated him in battle. Vadilgaut established his power over the Jutes, but appointed Geirvandill’s sons Aurvandill and Feng as under-kings. Aurvandill reigned for three years, and then decided to win for himself a wife. He heard of the princess Gerutha, fairest woman in the world, who was imprisoned in a tower in Jotunheim, surrounded and guarded over by giants. Aurvandill set out north with his fleet, bound for the land of the giants, but for three years his progress was hindered by the ice, until finally a storm freed them. Then the fleet sailed on to a land governed by a giant named Beli, who Aurvandill defeated in a sea-battle.
But then his ship was wrecked, and Aurvandill came floating on a plank to an island where he was rescued by a man in a fishing boat. But Aurvandill soon saw that the man was no ordinary fisherman: he had a castle with seven towers, and a host of fishermen served under him. In truth, he was the god Thor, who in the northern oceans had once caught the world-serpent on his hook.
After many other adventures, Aurvandill came to Odainsakr, where Garthyrth was imprisoned. Thor himself showed him the way. Aurvandill found Gerutha surrounded by giants and monsters, who spent their time fighting each other, but still waited upon the fair maiden as their princess. When Aurvandill approached, the giants tried to take his life, and he was hard pressed to defend himself.
But he came at last to Gerutha’s bower, where she received him with a kiss and a greeting, knowing that he was to be her husband. Once Aurvandill had defeated all the giants, they celebrated a kind of wedding, but between them lay a two-edged sword, and they slept like brother and sister by each other’s side before sailing back to Jutland.
Aurvandill had now passed three years in valiant deeds of war, and to win Vadilgaut’s favour, he gave the king the pick of his plunder. He married Gerutha, and she bore him a son named Amlodi. For many years they lived in peace.
But Feng, Aurvandill’s brother, was jealous at his good luck, and after much brooding he decided to murder his brother. When the chance came to do this, he seized upon it, and then married Gerutha, telling the people that Aurvandill had greatly ill-treated her.
‘It was to save her that I slew my brother,’ he told the people. ‘I thought it was shameful that she should suffer her husband’s abuse.’ And he was widely believed.
Amlodi was one who put no credence in his uncle’s claims. But fearing Feng might suspect him, he feigned madness.
Every day he lay by the hearth of his mother’s house, rolling in the dirt. Nothing that he said was anything other than madness. At other times he would sit over the fire, fashioning wooden crooks, hardening them in the fire and shaping barbs at their ends to make them hold more tightly.
Someone asked him what he was doing. ‘I am preparing sharp javelins to avenge my father,’ was his crazy reply. Everyone scoffed at this: but it helped him afterwards.
But these words made some of Feng’s thanes suspect a cunning mind beneath the mad behaviour. ‘His skill suggests he has the hidden talent of a craftsman,’ said one of them to the king.
‘His mind is quick enough,’ said another, ‘and he only acts the fool to hide some other intentions.’
‘Can you prove his deceitfulness?’ asked Feng thoughtfully.
‘We would, my lord,’ said a thane, ‘if we put a beautiful woman in his way, in some secluded place, and tempt him to acts of love. All men are too blind in love to be cunning.’
So Feng sent his thanes to take the young man to a remote part of the forest, and do all that they thought necessary.
Among them was Amlodi’s foster-brother, who did not want to trap Amlodi, but decided to warn him if he could. He could see that Amlodi would suffer the most if he behaved sanely, and if he made love to the girl openly. But Amlodi was aware of this also. When the men asked him to mount his horse, he sat upon it backwards, putting the reins on the tail. They rode on, and a wolf crossed Amlodi’s path through the thicket.
‘A young colt has met you,’ said one of the thanes, laughing at his own wit.
‘In Feng’s stud there are too few of that king fighting,’ said Amlodi. There were some frowns at this, which seemed to them a wittier answer than they had expected.
‘Your answer is cunning,’ said the first thane, ruefully.
‘I speak nothing but truth,’ replied Amlodi. He had no wish to be seen to lie about anything, and he mingled truth with wit to reveal nothing about the matter or about himself.
They came to the beach, where the thanes found the steering-oar of a wrecked ship. ‘Look, Amlodi,’ said one, ‘we have found a huge knife!’
‘Then it was the right thing to carve so big a ham,’ Amlodi replied. There was laughter at this, but in fact he meant the sea, which matched the steering-oar in vastness.
As they rode past the dunes, one said: ‘Look at this meal!’ referring the sand.
‘The tempests of the ocean have ground it small,’ Amlodi replied.
‘That’s not the answer of a fool,’ said the thane accusingly.
‘I spoke it wittingly,’ replied Amlodi.
Then the thanes left him, so he could pluck up the courage for love-making. In a dark place he encountered his foster-sister, who was the woman Feng had sent to tempt him. He took her, and would have slept with her immediately, had her brother not given him some idea that this was a trap. For the man had attached a straw to the tail of a gadfly, which he had sent in Amlodi’s direction, and Amlodi guessed from this that it was a secret warning to beware treachery. So he dragged the maid off to a distant fen, where they made love. Before they did so, Amlodi secretly laid down three objects he had gathered during the journey. Once they had lain together, he asked her earnestly to tell no one. She agreed in view of their long friendship.
When he returned home, the thanes were waiting for him. ‘Did you give way?’ asked one slyly.
‘Why, I ravished the maid,’ he replied.
‘Where did you commit the act?’ asked another. ‘And what was your pillow?’
‘I rested on the hoof of a donkey, a cockscomb, and a ceiling,’ replied Amlodi, and all laughed at the mad reply, but in truth, it had been fragments of these three objects that Amlodi had laid down on the ground before sleeping with his foster-sister.
‘Is what this madman says true?’ they asked the girl.
‘He did no such thing!’ she replied firmly. Also Amlodi’s escort agreed that it would have been impossible.
Then Amlodi’s foster-brother said: ‘Latterly, I have been singly devoted to you, brother.’
In reply, Amlodi said: ‘I saw a certain thing bearing a straw flit by suddenly, wearing a stalk of chaff fixed to its hind parts.’ Although the others laughed, his foster brother rejoiced.
So none of them had succeeded in tricking Amlodi. But one of Feng’s thanes, in council, said: ‘No simple plot can prove Amlodi’s cunning. ‘His obstinacy is great, and his wiliness is many-sided.’
‘Then what do you suggest?’ asked the king.
‘I have thought of a better way, which will certainly help us learn what we wish. My lord, you must leave the palace, claiming that affairs of state take you elsewhere. Closet Amlodi alone with his mother in her chamber, but first place a man in hiding in the room to listen to their speech. If Amlodi has any wits he will not hesitate to trust his mother.’
Feng nodded approvingly. He left the court claiming to be on a long journey. His thane went secretly to Gerutha’s chamber, and hid himself in the straw. But Amlodi was ready for any treachery. Afraid of eavesdroppers, he crowed like a noisy cock on entering the room, flapping his arms as if they were wings. Then he began to jump up and down on the straw to see if anything lurked there. Feeling a lump under his feet, he drove his sword in, and impaled the thane. Then he dragged the man from hiding and slew him. After that he hacked the body into pieces, seethed them in boiling water, and flung them into an open sewer for the pigs to eat. Now he returned to his mother’s chamber, where she lamented his madness. But he reproached her for her conduct, and tore her heart with his words.
When Feng returned, he could find his thane nowhere. Jokingly, he asked Amlodi, among others, if he had seen him.
‘Your thane went to the sewer, but he fell in and drowned in filth,’ Amlodi replied with a wild grin. ‘Then the swine ate him.’
Feng shook his head in disgust at this apparent nonsense.
Now Feng was certain that his stepson was full of guile and treachery, and he wished to slay him, but did not dare do this openly for fear of his wife. Instead, he decided to ask his old friend the King of Britain to kill him, so that he could claim ignorance of the deed.
Before Amlodi went, he went to his mother in secret. ‘Hang the hall with woven knots,’ he told her enigmatically. ‘And if I do not return after a year, perform obsequies for me. Then will I return.’
Two of Feng’s thanes went with him, taking with them a runic message to the King of Britain, asking him to execute their charge. On board ship, while his two companions were sleeping, Amlodi searched them, found the message, and read the runes. Then he scratched clean the stave, and cut his own message to the effect that his companions should be put to death, not he. In a postscript he asked that the King of Britain give his daughter in marriage to “a youth of great judgement” who he was sending. He signed it with his uncle’s signature.
When they reached Britain, the envoys went to the ruler, and gave him the rune-stave. The king read it, and then gave them good entertainment. But when Amlodi had the meat and drink of the feast placed before him, he rejected it.
‘How incredible,’ people were heard to murmur, ‘that a foreign lad should turn his nose up at the dainties of the royal table as if it were some peasant’s stew.’
When the feast was over, and the king was bidding goodnight to his friends, he sent a man to the quarters assigned to Amlodi and his companions to listen to their speech.
‘Why did you act as if the king’s meat was poisoned?’ asked one of the thanes.
‘Blood flecked the bread,’ replied Amlodi. ‘Did you not see it? And there was a tang of iron in the mead. As for the meat, it smelled like rotting flesh. Besides, the king has the eyes of a thrall, and in three ways the queen acted like a bondmaid.’
His companions jeered at him for his words.
Meanwhile, the king heard all this from his spy. ‘He who could say such things,’ the king remarked, ‘must possess either more than mortal wisdom, or more than mortal folly.’
He summoned his reeve, and asked him where he the bread came from. ‘It was made by your own baker, my lord,’ replied the reeve.
‘Where did the corn of which it was made grow?’ asked the king. ‘Are there any signs of carnage in the vicinity?’
The reeve replied. ‘Nearby is a field where men fought in former days,’ he said. ‘I planted this field with grain in spring, thinking it more fruitful than the others.’ He shrugged. ‘Maybe this affected the bread’s flavour.’
Hearing this, the king assumed that Amlodi had spoken truly. ‘And where did the meat come from?
‘My pigs strayed from their keeper,’ the reeve admitted. ‘And they were found eating the corpse of a robber. Perhaps it was this that the youth could taste.’
‘And of what liquor did you mix the mead?’
‘It was brewed of water and meal,’ replied the reeve. ‘I could show you the spring from which the water came.’
He did so, and when the king had it dug deep down, he found there several rusted swords.
After this, the king went to speak with his mother. ‘Who was my real father?’ he asked.
‘I submitted to no man but the king your father,’ she replied.
He threatened to have the truth out of her with a trial, and she relented. ‘Very well,’ she replied. ‘If you must know, your real father was a thrall.’
By this, the king understood Amlodi’s words. Although ashamed of his lowly origins, the king was so amazed by Amlodi’s cleverness that he asked him to his face why he had said the queen behaved like a bondmaid. But then he found that her mother had indeed been a thrall.
Amlodi told the king that he had seen three faults in her behaviour. ‘To begin with,’ he said, ‘she muffles her head in her mantle like a handmaid. Secondly, she picks up her gown when she walks. Thirdly, I saw her pick a piece of food from her teeth and then eat it.’ He went on to say that the king’s mother had been enslaved after captivity, in case she might seem servile only in her habits, rather than her birth.
The king praised Amlodi’s wisdom as if it was inspired, and in accordance with the message from Feng, gave him his daughter as wife. On the next day, to fulfil the rest of the message, he had Amlodi’s companions hanged. Amlodi feigned anger at this, and the king gave him gold in wergild, which he melted in the fire, and poured into two hollowed-out sticks.
After spending a year with the king, he asked leave to make a journey, and sailed back to his own land, taking with him only the sticks containing the gold. When he reached Jutland, he dressed again in his old rags, and entered the banquet hall covered in filth. Here he found the people holding his wake, and he struck them aghast, since all believed him to be dead. But in the end, their terror turned to laughter. The guests jeered and taunted each other.
‘That Amlodi should turn up at his own funeral!’
‘Where are the men who went with you?’ someone asked.
Amlodi pointed to the sticks he bore. ‘Here they are,’ he replied, to the laughter of all. Then he jollied the cupbearers, asking them to ply more drink. Next he girdled his sword on his side, then drew it several times, and cut himself with it. To protect him from himself, the king’s thanes had sword and scabbard riveted with iron nails. Then Amlodi plied the thanes with horn after horn of mead, until all were drunk. They fell asleep one by one in the hall itself.
Now Amlodi took from his rags the wooden crooks he had fashioned so long ago, then cut down the hanging his mother had made, which covered both the inner and the outer walls of the hall. Flinging this over the sleeping thanes, the then applied the crooked stakes, knotting and binding them so none could rise. Then he set fire to the hall.
As the fire spread, he went to Feng’s chamber, where he took his uncle’s sword from where it hung over the bed, and replaced it with his own. Then he woke Feng. ‘Your men are dying in flames,’ he said. ‘And here am I, Amlodi, armed with my crooks to help me, athirst for long overdue vengeance, for my father’s murder.’
On hearing this, Feng leapt from his couch and tried to draw the sword that hung over his bed. But Amlodi cut him down as he struggled to unsheathe the weapon.
Uncertain of how the Jutish nation would react to his deeds, Amlodi lay in hiding until he could learn the people’s thoughts. Everyone living nearby had watched the hall burn through the night, and in the morning they came to see what had occurred. Searching the ruins they found nothing but a few burnt corpses, and the body of Feng stabbed with his own sword. Some were angry, others saddened, others happy that the tyrant had been slain.
At this, Amlodi abandoned his hiding place, and called an assembly. Here he told the Jutes of the circumstances that had brought this about, where upon the people proclaimed him king, seeing him as a man of wisdom and cunning.
With this done, Amlodi equipped three ships, and sailed back to Britain to see his wife and his father-in-law. With him went the best of his thanes, well equipped and richly clad. He had had a shield made for him, upon which was painted the story of his exploits.
The King of Britain received them well, treating them as befits a king and his retinue. During the feast he asked: ‘Is my old friend Feng alive and well?’
Amlodi shook his head. ‘He died by the sword,’ he replied.
‘Who slew him?’ asked the king sharply.
‘It was I,’ replied Amlodi.
At this the king said nothing, but secretly he was horrified, for in their youth he and Feng had sworn that each should avenge the other’s death if one of them were to be slain. But the slayer was his son-in-law. Which should he chose, to honour his vow, or to respect the ties of blood and marriage? At last, he chose the former, but decided that he would achieve vengeance by the hands of another.
‘I have sad tidings to relate, also,’ he said. ‘While you were among the Jutes, my wife died of illness.’
Amlodi offered his condolences, and asked if he intended to marry again. ‘Indeed,’ the king replied, ‘and since I am delight with you cunning and craft, I would like you to find me a fresh match.’
‘Do you have any preferences?’ asked Amlodi.
The king replied that he did. ‘In Pictland there reigns an unmarried queen named Jormunthrud. I wish to marry her.’ But he neglected to tell Amlodi that the reason the queen was unmarried was because she had the custom of killing all who wooed her.
Amlodi set out for Pictland with his thanes and some of the king’s attendants. When he was near the hall of the queen, he came to a meadow by the road where he rested his horses. Finding the spot pleasing, he resolved to rest himself there, too, and posted men to keep watch some way off.
Queen Jormunthrud learnt of this, and sent ten warriors to spy on the foreigners. One of them slipped past the guards and took Amlodi’s shield, which Amlodi was using as a pillow, and the letter the King of Britain had entrusted him with. When he brought these things to Queen Jormunthrud, she examined the shield, and saw that this was the man who had with cunning and craft unsurpassed avenged on his uncle the murder of his father. She also read the letter with distaste. She had no desire to marry an old man. She rubbed out all the writing, and wrote in their place saying that the bearer was to ask her hand himself. Then she told the spies to replace both shield and letter.
Meanwhile, Amlodi had found the shield had been stolen, kept his eyes shut and feigned sleep when the spy returned. As the man was replacing the shield and letter, Amlodi sprang up, and seized him. Then he woke his thanes, and they rode on to the queen’s palace.
He greeted her. ‘I am here to represent my father-in-law, the King of Britain,’ he told her, and he handed her the letter, sealed with the king’s seal.
Jormunthrud too it, and read it. ‘I have heard of you,’ she said. ‘You are said to be very cunning. Your uncle deserved all he received at your hands. You achieved deeds beyond mortal estimation. Not only did you avenge you father’s death and your mother’s faithlessness, but at the same time you gained a kingdom. You have made only one mistake.’
‘And that is?’ challenged Amlodi.
‘Why, your lowly marriage,’ Jormunthrud replied, as if it was obvious. ‘Your wife’s parents were both of the stock of thralls, even if they became kings by accident. When looking for a wife, a man must regard firstly her birth over her beauty. I, whose origin is far from humble, am worthy of your bed and your embraces, since you surpass me in neither wealth nor ancestry. I am a queen, and whoever I deem worthy of my bed is king.’ She embraced him.
Amlodi, overjoyed by her words, kissed her back, and told her that her wishes were as his own. A banquet was held, the Picts gathered, and they were married. When this was done, Amlodi returned south with his bride, and a strong band of Picts followed to guard against attack. They met the King of Britain’s daughter.
‘It would be unworthy of me to hate you as an adulterer more than I love you as a husband,’ she said, ‘for I have now a son as a pledge of our marriage, and regard for him, if nothing else, means I must show the affection of a wife. He may hate his mother’s supplanter, I will love her. But I must tell you that you must beware your father-in-law.’
As she was speaking, the King of Britain came up and embraced Amlodi, and welcomed him to a banquet. But Amlodi, being forewarned, took a retinue of two hundred horsemen, and rode to the hall appointed. As he did so, the king attacked him under the porch of the hall, and thrust at him with a spear, but Amlodi’s mailshirt deflected the blow. Amlodi was slightly wounded, and he went back to the Pictish warriors. Then he sent to the king Jormunthrud’s spy, who he had taken prisoner. The man was to explain what had occurred, and then absolve Amlodi.
The king pursued Amlodi, and slew many of his men. The next day, Amlodi, wishing to fight, increased his apparent numbers by setting some of the corpses on horseback, and tying others to stones, and giving the impression that his forces were undiminished, and striking fear into the hearts of his opponents, who fled. Amlodi’s forces came down upon the king as he was retreating, and slew him.
Amlodi amassed a great amount of plunder, and then went with his two wives back to his own land.
In the meantime, Vadilgaut had died, and Vigleik, his son, had become king of the Angles. He had immediately begun to harass Gerutha, Amlodi’s mother, and stripped her of her royal wealth, saying that Amlodi had usurped the kingdom of the Jutes, and defrauded the King of the Angles, his overlord.
In a spirit of conciliation, Amlodi presented Vigleik with the richest of his spoils, but soon after he seized the chance for revenge, by attacking and subduing him. After this, Vigleik recruited the forces of the Angles, and challenged the Jutes to war. Amlodi saw that he was caught between disgrace and danger: if he accepted the challenge he would risk defeat or death, but to flee would be dishonourable. Finally, he decided to meet Vigleik on the field of combat.
But because he loved Jormunthrud so much, he was more concerned about her widowhood than his death. She said that she had a man’s courage, and would not abandon him on the battlefield. But she did not keep this promise. Amlodi rode against Vigleik in Jutland, and met his end in the fray. Now Jormunthrud accepted Vigleik’s offer of marriage, thus betraying Amlodi’s memory. So fell the Jutish royal house.
40 MILES SOUTH OF CLARK COUNTY by Todd Nelsen
John awoke to 99.7 and some woman with a terrible speech impediment discussing her husband’s infidelity: “He’th cheating on me, Dr. Tim, that dirty thon-of-a-bitch. He’th been at it for yearths and yearths.” Her lisp felt like it was grating the surface of his skull. It made his head pound.
Jesus Christ, he thought. No wonder some guys sleep around.
He pushed his head up from the steering wheel.
Where the hell was he?
The truck was still running. It was dark beyond the interior of the cab. The headlights were off.
“The wortht of it wath when I found him in bed with my thithter. My own thither! Can you believe that thit? I tell you what, Dr. Tim, I nearly thot that thon-of-a-bitch right then and --”
John twisted the knob of the radio, turning it off.
Had he had some kind of accident? Maybe he’d hit something? Maybe he should get out and take a look? He hit the forward lights and saw he was parked on the side of the road.
He reached for the door.
Wait, be smart about this, he thought. He’d heard the stories. Always check yourself for injuries.
Reaching a hand up, John turned on the dome light and looked into the mirror. Other than seeming a little more pale than usual, his face appeared normal. No cuts. No scratches. Not a mark on him. He felt his ribs and nothing felt out of place or broken. His throat was sore, but maybe he was coming down with a cold, he thought. Deciding he was in one piece, he stepped out of the cab. If he’d hit a deer there’d be blood on the grill, right? There was sure to be blood. But there wasn’t any. No deer. He walked to the rear of the truck and back to the front again. His truck was in one piece, too, it seemed. Kicking a tire for good measure, he took a look at the surrounding countryside, nothing but empty sky, and stepped back in.
What the hell had happened? Had he been here all night? He didn’t know what time it was and had no way of telling. Mary will be worried, he thought. And with his head pounding, and still puzzled, he put the truck in drive and pulled back on the road.
He didn’t turn on the radio.
If he would have bothered to check the gas, he would have seen he had ¾ of a tank remaining, the same amount he’d had before awaking.
* * *
John drove straight home. He would have liked to have stopped for aspirin, or even a beer, anything to relieve the pounding in his head, but it was a short commute. He was 40 miles south of Clark County. The drive home took him well under an hour.
As he pulled onto the gravel path leading up to the old country house, the dogs yapped and yelped at the heels of his tires. He brought the Ford to a halt and stepped out, his head still grating. The dogs jumped up to his waist, nearly knocking him over. They weren’t greeting him; they were showing who’s boss. He didn’t dare strike them or bat them away. They were his wife’s dogs, her babies, she called them. The young couple didn’t have children.
He walked into the house, happy to be home.
“Mary!” he called, his voice hoarse. “I’m home, sugar plum. You here?”
Mary, her hair tied back and wearing a flowered dress, looking beautiful, always beautiful, came to greet him. She asked how his day was. John said, fine, fine. He inquired about her day, and she told him, her voice dripping with love, and then both walked into the kitchen and sat down to supper.
It was Friday, and he could smell Friday’s chicken roasting in the oven.
He complained of a headache, and she brought him some aspirin.
John looked at the clock as he ate, pushing the food in his mouth with his fork, barely tasting it; it was 6 pm, same time it always was when they sat down for supper. The couple finished their meal, watched some television, and both went to bed.
He never told her what had happened.
* * *
At about 1 AM, John awoke to a terrible pain in his stomach, and feeling nauseated, he darted to the bathroom. After vomiting the entire contents of his evening meal, and his lunch the day earlier, he took three more aspirin and returned to bed.
Mary was asleep and hadn’t woken. He quietly slipped back under the covers.
His dreams… were peculiar.
* * *
He awoke to the sounds of the dogs playing outside. The curtains were drawn. A thin beam of morning sunlight shined through them. Throwing on a robe, he walked to the kitchen and found Mary dressed and ready.
He felt sick.
“There’s coffee and cakes on the table, honey,” she said. “I’ve got to go to town and pick up a few things. You gonna be --?” She turned to him. “Jesus, John. You look terrible!” She raised her hand to his forehead. “You feeling okay?”
He mumbled something back that sounded like, I’m thick, then sat down at the table.
“You’re feverish!” she said.
The touch of her hand felt good on his head. It felt good when Mary touched him. “I don’t feel well,” he said.
“Well, you shouldn’t be up,” she told him. “Get on back to bed.”
Not feeling argumentative, he did as he was told. She brought him a damp cloth, which she folded over twice, into a rectangle, and placed over his forehead. “I won’t be long,” she said, covering and tucking him in. “I got to go to town, John. We’re both liable to starve to death. The cupboards are bare. You stay under those covers until I’m back.”
“We could always eat the dogs, if it comes down to it,” he offered, simpering a smile. She didn’t find it amusing. He didn’t want her to go. “I’m kiddin,’ honey,” he said. “I’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Caught me a bug. You hurry on back.”
He closed his eyes and listened as the truck, the only means of transportation between the two of them, sped off the gravel and onto the road. He didn’t hear a single yap or yelp from the dogs. They never tortured her the way they did him. He figured it was on account of their jealousy.
And they had every right to be jealous, he thought.
He did have himself the love of one hell of a woman.
* * *
He awoke, the pain now having traveled into his legs and his arms. He hurt all over. Was it possible for fingernails to hurt? If so, his were aching. Pushing himself up, the nausea was coming back, John all but crawled to the bathroom and stuck his head, once more, into the mouth of the toilet. He had nothing to offer it, however, and dry heaved into the water. Fumbling for the aspirin bottle, it was still open from the night before, he downed four of the small, white pills and made his way back to the bed.
The dogs were barking again.
John went to the window and drew the curtains.
“He’th cheating on me, Dr. Tim, that dirty thon-of-a-bark-bark-bitch,” they were saying.
“Cool it!” he shouted.
They darted off, ignoring him, apparently having found something of interest high above them in the branches of the apple tree near the yard.
John lay back on the bed, his head feeling more like a steam engine than a head -- at least, what a head should feel like -- and closed his eyes. Mary will be back soon, he thought, and the dogs will shut up, and she’ll take care of me, and --
But Mary didn’t return, and the dogs didn’t stop.
He sat up, and throwing on his robe, he walked to the living room and out to the yard. Upon seeing him, and losing interest in the tree, the dogs playfully ran up to him.
“Cool it, you two!” he said.
He immediately understood his mistake. Before he could turn back into the house, they were on him, leaping up to his waist. John lost his footing, they were big dogs, and fell backwards onto the porch. As he lay there, watching their padded feet scurrying around him, their wet noses sniffing, obviously pleased with their work, he felt a tightening in his stomach, as if something was pushing around inside, replacing the nausea he felt earlier.
He closed his eyes and waited for whatever new pain to come.
But it didn’t come. Instead, the tightening increased, and as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.
He could no longer hear their padded feet. It was quiet.
He opened his eyes.
And looking up he saw hands.
But they weren’t his hands.
And then he remembered.
A bright light, a humming sound, his body going limp and his hands (they were still his hands then) falling away from the wheel as the truck came to a stop. The door of the truck opening, his lights being shut off (why would they bother with the lights? he wondered), then being hefted out of his seat and taken --
Up. Taken up. Where they experimented (he had the distinct feeling they’d never seen a human before), and probed, and stuck shit into his head, and made him swallow --
Aspirin. No, it wasn’t aspirin. It was a tube, and inside that tube was a red mass, resembling an apple, just like the apples in the tree of the yard, and he began to choke, and they forced him to keep it down, and then he lost consciousness and awoke to… to 99.7 and some woman with a terrible speech impediment discussing her husband’s infidelity.
And now he was lying with his back to the porch, and his…
HANDS (but they weren’t his hands) were holding the dogs by their necks, choking the life out of them. And his…
HEAD (but it wasn’t his head) was curiously watching. And his…
LEGS and FEET (but it wasn’t his legs and feet) were under him, standing his…
BODY (no longer his body) up and walking him back into the house, the pain gone.
* * *
On the porch, Mary dropped the groceries and let out a scream.
“Hello, thugar plum,” the voice said at the door. “What took you tho long? I’m thtarving!”
Yes, sir, he was feeling a whole lot better!
THE HOUSE OF SKULLS by Gavin Chappell
1 The Silent Raiders
The pall of smoke that had loomed over the savannah since dawn was billowing from the village ahead. As Yeduza directed her scouts forward, she felt a cold claw of anticipation clutch at her heart. Had they finally found the trail of the raiders?
The scouts loped silently forward, casting cautious glances to left and right as they approached the palisade that surrounded the collection of blackened, thatched huts. Soon they were out of sight from the main force.
Yeduza sat her horse patiently. The warriors of the Nago waited in silence, ostrich-plume headdresses nodding on their heads, their spears and assegais a fence of steel as the hot sun beat down from a sky like burnished brass. Around them, the dusty savannah stretched towards an endless horizon, its red earth and yellow grasses broken only by thickets of thorn bushes and occasional baobab trees thrusting dry branches towards the over-arching skies. Throughout the disciplined ranks of spearmen and horsemen, there was not a sound.
Yeduza looked up as the scouts returned from the burning village, sprinting across the withered grass towards her position. Their leader halted before Yeduza; he was a tall man with the aquiline nose and straight hair of a Bengue herder from the north. His dark face was pale, his eyes wide and glassy. Yeduza knew he was a man who had seen many wars since Emperor Mtogo seized the throne of Nago. Whatever he had seen in the guttered village must be truly horrific.
He pointed back the way he had come, and shook his head. ‘They’ve been here,’ he said thickly. ‘They’ve been here only recently.’
‘Any survivors?’ Yeduza snapped.
The Bengue scout shook his head, his eyes troubled. ‘All dead, or taken,’ he muttered.
Yeduza looked back at her warriors. Troop after troop, they stood or sat motionless in the hot sun, awaiting her orders. She kicked her horse forward.
‘I will see this,’ she said. ‘Some of you, come with me.’
Twelve warriors rode forward, each one a tough, hard-bitten Amazon of Mtogo’s personal guard like Yeduza herself. Like her, each wore her hair elaborately coiffured with loam to resembled bull’s horns, and identical scars criss-crossed their cheeks. Each bore a long assegai in her right hand, a hippopotamus-hide shield in her left.
She nodded to the Bengue scout, and he trotted alongside her as they rode cautiously into the centre of the village.
Huts smoked or blazed on either side. Cooking pots, broken calabashes, and dead chickens littered the hard-packed red earth. Yeduza encountered no sign of habitation until she saw an old man sitting in the shade of a tree. As she guided her unwilling horse closer, she saw the man’s body had been hacked in two like a pig in the marketplace. Red, writhing worms of guts pooled beside him, in the shadow of the tree.
The riders turned a corner and found themselves in the central space of the village. Where the villagers had once held their market, now was a scene of slaughter.
Severed heads leered from stakes, watching with glassy eyes as the Nago warriors approached. Black blood pooled on the earth.
A flock of vultures leapt into the air as the warriors entered the open space, and circled above, screeching and cackling. The butchered corpses they had abandoned were almost stripped of flesh. A cooking pot hung from an iron stand above still smoking embers.
Yeduza could see too few for this heap of corpses to represent the entire population of the village. Gagging at the stench of death, she dismounted to speak to the scout.
‘Where are the rest?’ she demanded. ‘What have they done to the others? These are only old people, or small children. What happened to the youths of the village?’
The Bengue shrugged. ‘Perhaps the raiders took them to sell as slaves,’ he replied.
‘No,’ said one of the Amazons. Yeduza turned to look at the woman, a tall, ill-favoured female called Ngiri. ‘The raiders take no slaves. They spare only those who will join them – become like them.’
Yeduza gave Ngiri an appraising look. She strode across to the cooking pot and thrust a finger in to test the heat of its contents. The mess of millet and rice was still warm.
‘They cannot be far away,’ she said, a note of urgency in her voice.
Her companions numbered only fourteen, and the raiders must still be nearby. A chill of fear ran down her spine. The contents of the cooking pot, disturbed by her questing finger, bubbled. Something bobbed up to the top. Yeduza felt cold sweat break out on her skin.
Floating on the surface was a small human hand.
A roar of many voices alerted Yeduza, and she whirled round. The noise came from outside the village, where she had left her forces.
‘They’re under attack!’ Ngiri exclaimed. ‘The raiders?’
‘Who else?’ Yeduza seized the pommel of her horse’s saddle and swinging herself up. She cursed herself for being drawn off into the village while the cannibal raiders had massed elsewhere, leaving her troops leaderless while she satisfied morbid curiosity. She brandished her assegai towards the sound of battle. ‘Follow me!’ she cried, and spurred her horse into a gallop.
The Bengue scout sprinted to keep up as the other riders cantered after her.
They rode out from the huts to see upon the plain before them the troops of Nago under attack from hundreds of ghastly figures, men in the brief garb of villagers, their faces and limbs daubed a chalk-white. Armed with assegais and sickle-bladed swords, the raiders came on in an awful silence. Yeduza’s warriors were recoiling before their eerie onslaught.
Desperate, Yeduza galloped her horse towards the centre of the crumbling line. She shrieked the ‘Yeee!’ battle cry of the Nagos, plunging her assegai into the white-painted breast of a silent attacker. Her charge dragged the speared body through the dust, but still the white-painted figure clutched at the blade. Yeduza twisted her arm and hauled the assegai out of the man’s guts. To her horror, she saw him rise once more to his feet.
The impetus of her charge had carried her into the raiders’ ranks. Her horse whinnied and rose on its hind-legs as white-painted faces leered all around her. The raider she had speared shuffled towards them, dragging a sword alongside it.
Then horses were on either side of Yeduza, riding into the crowd, Amazons on their backs thrusting assegais into raiders who rose again and again to tear at their assailants with clawed hands. Grimacing, Yeduza thrust her assegai directly into the painted face of another raider. Her blade jutted from the back of the man’s skull and he fell back to twitch among the thundering hoofs of the attacking Nago horses. She did not see whether he died.
Yeduza swivelled in her saddle and called to her troops, cavalry and infantry.
‘Fight! Fight, children of Nago! Fight and die, for our Emperor Mtogo! Fight for Nago!’
The Nagos rushed forward, cutting and hacking at the silent raiders, many falling to their deadly foes, but others struggled on. Yeduza urged them on as she led her riders deeper into the fray. The dust hung in thick clouds around the battlefield, almost blotting out the blazing sun that hung above them. As Yeduza fought on, a booming, belling note rung out across the embattled armies.
At once, the silent raiders drew back, their voiceless multitude dividing to open up an avenue. The Nago warriors halted, and looked to Yeduza for orders. But Yeduza’s attention was on the gap in the crowd, and the figure that rode down the avenue of warriors towards her. So, this was the leader of the raiders who had swarmed up from the southern jungles, locust-like, to ransack Mtogo’s empire!
She saw a tall man, easily seven foot high, his skin the jet-black of the jungle tribes. Long, curling locks of hair hung down his broad back. Round his throat, he wore a choker of bones, and a kilt of snakeskin hung from his hip. He bore an assegai in one hand, a hippopotamus-hide shield like Yeduza’s own in the other. The glossy skin of his face was daubed a ghastly white. But it was his eyes that caught and seized Yeduza’s gaze.
They were cold and merciless. Snake eyes, Yeduza found herself thinking as the man rode closer. The eyes of a python, mesmerising its prey.
Silence hung heavy over the battlefield as the horseman trotted closer to Yeduza’s position.
He cast a questing, probing glance at the ranks of Nago footmen and cavalry then spoke in a rolling, booming voice:
‘Who is the leader of this rabble?’ he called. ‘Is the coward Mtogo come to fight his foe, the Kikwenzi?’
So that was what they called themselves, Yeduza thought. But these white-painted Kikwenzi were the rabble, not the armies of Mtogo. She stirred in her saddle and the tall man turned his glittering serpent gaze upon her.
‘You?’ he boomed, incredulously. ‘Do you lead these warriors? Does Mtogo send a woman to face me? I’ll give you to my slaves, make you their plaything!’
‘I am Yeduza, captain of Mtogo’s bodyguard, general of his armies,’ Yeduza replied angrily. ‘I have fought for him since his youth, when he took the land of Nago from Mungu-Ovu, who ruled as a tyrant from the House of Skulls! I shall strike you down, you and your bandit army! Who are you to challenge the Emperor?’
‘I am Chinja,’ the tall man replied. ‘I am Warlord of the Kikwenzi.’ He indicated the silent ranks on his either hand. Their blank faces looked upon the scene as blindly as skulls in some mausoleum. Yeduza felt a chill run down her spine, but she shook off her fear and brandished her assegai.
‘Let us fight it out, you and I,’ she proposed, as Chinja’s snakelike gaze held her. ‘Why should our people die? Let us fight in single combat, before our armies, and let the loser leave this land.’ Her voice rang with a confidence that was not entirely unfounded. Few had defeated her in the many years that she had fought for her Emperor.
She remembered how she had struggled to defeat the Kikwenzi she had fought, and shivered.
Chinja laughed. He leapt down from his horse and advanced, carrying assegai and shield. ‘Very well then!’ he boomed, and his assegai blade flashed in the sunlight. ‘Come fight me.’
Yeduza leapt down from her own horse, flung its reins into the hands of the nearest warrior, and stamped across the red earth to meet her challenger.
They faced each other, the Nago Amazon, her scarred face emotionless, her assegai held steady; the tall raider chieftain, his eyes cold and glittering. They began to circle, as the massed ranks looked on, each probing forward with their assegai, each bearing their shield before them to meet the others’ attack.
Yeduza’s naked feet padded on the hard earth as she moved forward; her assegai flashed in the sunlight; Chinja’s shield met it, turned its blow, and then his own assegai shot forward, aiming under Yeduza’s lifted shield. She leapt back then thrust her assegai at Chinja’s unprotected shoulder. Chinja parried the thrust with his assegai and the crack of wood meeting wood rang out across the field.
Yeduza charged forward, shield in front of her, and smashed into Chinja’s own shield, sending him staggering back. He jabbed awkwardly down at her with his assegai, and its razor-sharp edge sliced through the ostrich plumes that nodded on her head.
Yeduza lunged, feinted, waited until the man brought his shield up, then lunged again, going in under its lower edge, sinking in. Yeduza put all her weight and strength behind that blow. She saw the assegai vanish under the shield until over half its length was gone, yet she felt nothing. She stared at her opponent in bewilderment.
Those snake-eyes seized her again. She pulled back her assegai. What witchcraft was this? No blood was visible on its tip. Chinja drew his shield aside, and she saw that his torso was unmarked. And yet she had thrust the assegai in for half its length…
Chinja laughed at her incredulity then thrust with his assegai. Despite her horror and confusion, Yeduza succeeded in lifting her heavy shield to counter the blow, but this was what Chinja had been waiting for. Copying her own trick, he thrust his assegai under her shield rim. She felt it sink deep into her thigh, tearing and ripping through skin and flesh and sinking deep into bone. In the last moment before consciousness departed, Yeduza knew that if she survived this wound, it would cripple her.
As she fell heavily to the red earth, she heard, as if from the end of a long subterranean tunnel, the pounding of feet as the Kikwenzi charged the Nago ranks.
TO BE CONTINUED.
VARNEY THE VAMPYRE ascribed to Thomas Preskett Prest
THE INTERVIEW BETWEEN THE MOB AND SIR FRANCIS VARNEY.—THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE.—THE WINE CELLARS.
The shout that had so discomposed the parties who were thus engaged in a terrific struggle came from a party above.
"Hurrah! hurrah!" they shouted a number of times, in a wild strain of delight. "Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!"
The fact was, a party of the mob had clambered up a verandah, and entered some of the rooms upstairs, whence they emerged just above the landing near the spot where the servants were resisting in a mass the efforts of the mob.
"Hurrah!" shouted the mob below.
"Hurrah!" shouted the mob above.
There was a momentary pause, and the servants divided themselves into two bodies, and one turned to face those above, and the other those who were below.
A simultaneous shout was given by both parties of the mob, and a sudden rush was made by both bodies, and the servants of Sir Francis Varney were broken in an instant. They were instantly separated, and knocked about a good bit, but they were left to shift for themselves, the mob had a more important object in view.
"Down with the vampyre!" they shouted.
"Down with the vampyre!" shouted they, and they rushed helter skelter through the rooms, until they came to one where the door was partially open, and they could see some person very leisurely seated.
"Here he is," they cried.
"Down with him! kill him! burn him!"
"Hurrah! down with the vampire!"
These sounds were shouted out by a score of voices, and they rushed headlong into the room.
But here their violence and headlong precipitancy were suddenly restrained by the imposing and quiet appearance of the individual who was there seated.
The mob entered the room, and there was a sight, that if it did not astonish them, at least, it caused them to pause before the individual who was seated there.
The room was well filled with furniture, and there was a curtain drawn across the room, and about the middle of it there was a table, behind which sat Sir Francis Varney himself, looking all smiles and courtesy.
"Well, dang my smock-frock!" said one, "who'd ha' thought of this? He don't seem to care much about it."
"Well, I'm d——d!" said another; "he seems pretty easy, at all events. What is he going to do?"
"Gentlemen," said Sir Francis Varney, rising, with the blandest smiles, "pray, gentlemen, permit me to inquire the cause of this condescension on your part. The visit is kind."
The mob looked at Sir Francis, and then at each other, and then at Sir Francis again; but nobody spoke. They were awed by this gentlemanly and collected behaviour.
"If you honour me with this visit from pure affection and neighbourly good-will, I thank you."
"Down with the vampyre!" said one, who was concealed behind the rest, and not so much overawed, as he had not seen Sir Francis.
Sir Francis Varney rose to his full height; a light gleamed across his features; they were strongly defined then. His long front teeth, too, showed most strongly when he smiled, as he did now, and said, in a bland voice,—
"Gentlemen, I am at your service. Permit me to say you are welcome to all I can do for you. I fear the interview will be somewhat inconvenient and unpleasant to you. As for myself, I am entirely at your service."
As Sir Francis spoke, he bowed, and folded his hands together, and stepped forwards; but, instead of coming onwards to them, he walked behind the curtain, and was immediately hid from their view.
"Down with the vampyre!" shouted one.
"Down with the vampyre!" rang through the apartment; and the mob now, not awed by the coolness and courtesy of Sir Francis, rushed forward, and, overturning the table, tore down the curtain to the floor; but, to their amazement, there was no Sir Francis Varney present.
"Where is he?"
"Where is the vampyre?"
"Where has he gone?"
These were cries that escaped every one's lips; and yet no one could give an answer to them.
There Sir Francis Varney was not. They were completely thunderstricken. They could not find out where he had gone to. There was no possible means of escape, that they could perceive. There was not an odd corner, or even anything that could, by any possibility, give even a suspicion that even a temporary concealment could take place.
They looked over every inch of flooring and of wainscoting; not the remotest trace could be discovered.
"Where is he?"
"I don't know," said one—"I can't see where he could have gone. There ain't a hole as big as a keyhole."
"My eye!" said one; "I shouldn't be at all surprised, if he were to blow up the whole house."
"You don't say go!"
"I never heard as how vampyres could do so much as that. They ain't the sort of people," said another.
"But if they can do one thing, they can do another."
"That's very true."
"And what's more, I never heard as how a vampyre could make himself into nothing before; yet he has done so."
"He may be in this room now."
"My eyes! what precious long teeth he had!"
"Yes; and had he fixed one on 'em in to your arm, he would have drawn every drop of blood out of your body; you may depend upon that," said an old man.
"He was very tall."
"Yes; too tall to be any good."
"I shouldn't like him to have laid hold of me, though, tall as he is; and then he would have lifted me up high enough to break my neck, when he let me fall."
The mob routed about the room, tore everything out of its place, and as the object of their search seemed to be far enough beyond their reach, their courage rose in proportion, and they shouted and screamed with a proportionate increase of noise and bustle; and at length they ran about mad with rage and vexation, doing all the mischief that was in their power to inflict.
Then they became mischievous, and tore he furniture from its place, and broke it in pieces, and then amused themselves with breaking it up, throwing pieces at the pier-glasses, in which they made dreadful holes; and when that was gone, they broke up the frames.
Every hole and corner of the house was searched, but there was no Sir Francis Varney to be found.
"The cellars, the cellars!" shouted a voice.
"The cellars, the cellars!" re-echoed nearly every pair of lips in the whole place; in another moment, there was crushing an crowding to get down into the cellars.
"Hurray!" said one, as he knocked off the neck of the bottle that first came to hand.
"Here's luck to vampyre-hunting! Success to our chase!"
"So say I, neighbour; but is that your manners to drink before your betters?"
So saying, the speaker knocked the other's elbow, while he was in the act of lifting the wine to his mouth; and thus he upset it over his face and eyes.
"D—n it!" cried the man; "how it makes my eyes smart! Dang thee! if I could see, I'd ring thy neck!"
"Success to vampyre-hunting!" said one.
"May we be lucky yet!" said another.
"I wouldn't be luckier than this," said another, as he, too, emptied a bottle. "We couldn't desire better entertainment, where the reckoning is all paid."
"Capital wine this!"
"I say, Huggins!"
"Well," said Huggins.
"What are you drinking?"
"Danged if I know," was the reply. "It's wine, I suppose; for I know it ain't beer nor spirits; so it must be wine."
"Are you sure it ain't bottled men's blood?"
"Bottled blood, man! Who knows what a vampyre drinks? It may be his wine. He may feast upon that before he goes to bed of a night, drink anybody's health, and make himself cheerful on bottled blood!"
"Oh, danged! I'm so sick; I wish I hadn't taken the stuff. It may be as you say, neighbour, and then we be cannibals."
"There's a pretty thing to think of."
By this time some were drunk, some were partially so, and the remainder were crowding into the cellars to get their share of the wine.
The servants had now slunk away; they were no longer noticed by the rioters, who, having nobody to oppose them, no longer thought of anything, save the searching after the vampyre, and the destruction of the property. Several hours had been spent in this manner, and yet they could not find the object of their search.
There was not a room, or cupboard, or a cellar, that was capable of containing a cat, that they did not search, besides a part of the rioters keeping a very strict watch on the outside of the house and all about the grounds, to prevent the possibility of the escape of the vampyre.
There was a general cessation of active hostilities at that moment; a reaction after the violent excitement and exertion they had made to get in. Then the escape of their victim, and the mysterious manner in which he got away, was also a cause of the reaction, and the rioters looked in each others' countenances inquiringly.
Above all, the discovery of the wine-cellar tended to withdraw them from violent measures; but this could not last long, there must be an end to such a scene, for there never was a large body of men assembled for an evil purpose, who ever were, for any length of time, peaceable.
To prevent the more alarming effects of drunkenness, some few of the rioters, after having taken some small portion of the wine, became, from the peculiar flavour it possessed, imbued with the idea that it was really blood, and forthwith commenced an instant attack upon the wine and liquors, and they were soon mingling in one stream throughout the cellars.
This destruction was loudly declaimed against by a large portion of the rioters, who were drinking; but before they could make any efforts to save the liquor, the work of destruction had not only been begun, but was ended, and the consequence was, the cellars were very soon evacuated by the mob.
BRIGANDS OF THE MOON by Ray Cummings
"Is he conscious? We'd better take him back: get his helmet off."
"It's over. We can get back to the camp now. Venza dear, we've won—it's over."
"He hears us!"
"He hears us. He'll be all right!"
I opened my eyes, I lay on the rocks. Over my helmet, other helmets were peering, and faint, familiar voices mingled with the roaring in my ears.
"—back to the camp and get his helmet off."
"Are his motors smooth? Keep them right, Snap—he must have good air."
I seemed unhurt. But Anita....
She was here. "Gregg, dear one!"
Anita safe! All four of us here on the Earthlit rocks, close outside the brigand ship.
She held me, lifted me. I was uninjured. I could stand: I staggered up and stood swaying. The brigand ship, a hundred feet away, loomed dark and silent, a lifeless hulk, already empty of air, drained in the mad blast outward. Like the wreck of the Planetara—a dead, useless, pulseless hulk already.
We four stood together, triumphant. The battle was over. The brigands were worsted, almost the last man of them dead or dying. No more than ten or fifteen had been available for that final assault upon the camp buildings. Miko's last strategy. I think perhaps he had intended, with his few remaining men, to take the ship and make away, deserting his fellows.
All on the ship, caught unhelmeted by the explosion, were dead long since.
I stood listening to Snap's triumphant account. It had not been difficult for the flying platforms to hunt down the attacking brigands on the open rocks. We had only lost one more platform.
Human hearts beat sometimes with very selfish emotions. It was a triumphant ending for us, and we hardly gave a thought that half of Grantline's men had perished.
We huddled on Snap's platform. It rose, lurching drunkenly barely carrying us.
As we headed for the Grantline buildings, where still the rift in the wall had not quite broken, there came the final triumph. Miko had been aware of it, and knew he had lost. Grantline's searchlight leaped upward, swept the sky, caught its sought-for object—a huge silver cylinder, bathed brightly in the white searchbeam glare.
The police ship from Earth.