by C.F Hughes
The second part of my novella-in-progress.
|Thump, thump. A steady, even pace for a long journey upon an earthen woodland road, the stout staff beating a rhythm upon the ground. The traveller’s cloak, woven to endure the hardships of the pilgrim, the bottom hem coated with the dust of a thousand visited places. The boots, made in London, with their thick souls and strong sides, made to last many journeys.
Samuel hummed a listless, yet cheerful tune as he strode along the road to Lyston, the surrounding forest slowly giving way to levelled plains edging against the distant swampland. He sniffed the air, noting a strong smell of smoke intermingled with an odd, burning odour, somewhat akin to the charring of meat. Moving quickly, he strayed from the track to ascend the slope of a nearby hill, scurrying up its rather steep slope, digging his staff into the damp ground for support. Reaching the top, he stooped, resting his hands upon his knees for a moment in order to catch his breathe, then stood upright and gazed down into the valley that was his destination.
Lyston was smaller than some of the other villages he had visited, but nonetheless looked rather large and self-sufficient. The population was around five hundred or so, Samuel reckoned, counting both those within the town’s dirt-splattered wooden walls and those in the smaller communes and farms that clustered themselves without. Three different groups there were of small buildings, laying a short distance from the walls and village proper. One had the look of a merchant’s stop over; numerous barns and stables stood around a larger, two-storey building that had the look of an inn about it, and a rather good one at that. Another cluster, this one upon a small hill, must be a monastery. A small church lay in the centre of it, with many smaller cells around it. Samuel couldn’t help but note the large graveyard that lay beyond the church; it sprawled, covering many acres, the unkempt look of the place marking its decaying, deathly designation for all to see.
Samuel shuddered just slightly before turning to examine the other community, which lay beyond the river. This one looked decidedly unfriendly, with a rather tumbledown look about the houses. It was over this region that hung the pall of smoke: squinting, Samuel could see a small, flaming hovel, surrounded by minute, scurrying figures. He shrugged to himself, assuming some sort of accident had taken place. Hoisting his old hessian bag upon his shoulders, he turned and descended from the hilltop to search for a night’s lodging.
Cursing, whimpering and sweating, the portly monk ran with all his mustered might, the hem of his robe dragging upon the slime-slicked floor of the catacomb tunnel. His sandals flip-flopped as he struggled on, on and ever on, seeking nought but complete and utter escape from his pursuer. Straining his ears as he ran, he became acutely aware of an odd thumping sound some distance behind him, just past the tunnel’s previous bend. He redoubled his efforts, pure dread lending aid to his flight.
His fear was not misplaced; many times had he ventured unto this hallowed ground beneath the monastery graveyard, and never once previously had he seen anything to upset him so. The bones of the long dead lay ever still, nothing but hollow reminders of people once living, resting together in a macabre, yet serene testament to the enduring power of human fraternity. But this time...
Quietly, yet boldly he had approached the covert voices heard inside the inner chamber. The air had tasted odd, he remembered; the usual damp mustiness that accompanied the bones had given way to a much fresher scent, one that spoke of death most recent.
The scent of decay.
The rotting odour had assaulted both his nostrils and his imagination, yet he pressed ever closer, quenching his mindless fear with a calm prayer. Clutching his crucifix, he had sidled up to the stone arch doorway of the room, and gingerly peered around the corner.
Numerous cloaked figures had their backs to him, standing in a semi circle around what appeared to be an altar of some sort, but of such a faith as yet unknown to him. All manner of bizarre symbols adorned its blood-splattered surface; images of monsters leered at him, of violent tongues of hot, hellish flame, of warlike diagrams, disfigured figures clad in armour, mindlessly slaying one another with reckless, relentless abandon.
But the figures, the odd souls standing attention, those whose spectacle was one of horror and ultimate dread... Clad in crimson robes, their identities indistinguishable amid the semi darkness of the chamber, all chanting odd, guttural sounds, at once speaking and growling.
As the monk silently observed this strange spectacle, the volume of the odd chant began to rise, the tempo quickened, the very nature of the language – if such a word could describe those odd sounds – began to shift into a much more animalistic tone. The incessant jabbering of the fiends gradually became more excited, climaxing as another figure entered the room from the opposite side, carrying something wrapped in a blanket. Dumping the bundle upon the altar, the figures fell silent with anticipation. Slowly, very slowly, the couriers’ delivery was revealed.
A human being, long since perished and beginning to rot.
Samuel drew heavily from his flagon of ale, then slammed the mug down upon the tabletop. The Ragged Banner made a fine brew indeed, slaking the thirst of many a weary traveller. Glancing about, he caught the eye of a local farmer, seated at the other end of the long main table that dominated the main room. Smiling at the man, he reached for his previously emptied mug, and raised it in a jocular salute at him. The small man threw him a dark look, struggled quickly to his feet then shuffled out of the front door, grumbling curses under his breathe as he went. Puzzled, Samuel turned towards the innkeeper, and arched a quizzical eyebrow. The keeper sighed, stepped around his small bar at the opposite side of the room, and waddled over to take the seat across from Samuel.
‘You stopping here long, are ye?’ he asked.
‘Nay, kind sir,’ replied Samuel. ‘I walk to Canterbury.’
The innkeeper grunted, and stood up, collecting Samuel’s mug as he went. ‘A fine idea, young master,’ he said. ‘Sorry about that fellow’s rudeness, but it’s not been a good time for ol’ Lyston lately.’ He shuffled back to his bar, and busied himself amongst the mugs and barrels. Samuel noted that he walked with an odd limp.
‘Indeed? And why is that, may I ask?’
The keeper slowly shook his head. ‘Bad, bad business, stranger,’ he said. ‘Evil, you might say.’ He glance around covertly, as if afraid the shadows may swallow him. ‘Murder,’ he whispered.
‘Aye, and nay normal murder either. This is the doin’ o’ the devil. That guard in town, the Richard fella – you’ll surely see him, if you go in there – he’s been driven mad, he has. Says he has dreams, visions and such, dreams of the dead.’
‘Dreams of the dead?’
‘Aye. He sees through their eyes, he says, sees them murdered and then...’ the keeper faltered, then reassumed in a shakier tone, ‘sees em’ walkin’ about, like you an’ me, only rottin’ an’ stumblin’ an’ such.’
Samuel shuddered. Though the disgruntled farmer had closed the door behind him, he could swear he felt a sharp, ice cold breeze.
‘What can you tell me about these murders?’ he asked.
The unfortunate monk slowly shook his head. To pervert God’s design, to ruin it so, to rip from him the secrets of life! Those foul men, in their foul robes...
He had watched, with horrified fascination, as the cloaked figures fell upon the body on the altar, drawing knives and saws and sickles, ripping, hacking, tearing the flesh and snapping the bone of the hapless victim’s body, renting it asunder and spilling its blood about the room. He stood on in silent disgust and twisted dread as the head figure, with bloodied knife in one hand and a grotesque, evil-looking grimoire in the other, recite a twisted passage from its withered pages, the crazed words spluttering and spurting forth, a disgusting parody of sound, the crimson-clad followers swaying with the rhythm of the chant. Steadily it rose as before, gaining volume and speed, then came to an abrupt, shocking stop.
The silence was complete. The very air within the chamber felt tense, coiled, ready to spring, those in crimson standing perfectly still. The entire room felt an extreme, agitated anticipation as slowly, but surely, the body upon the altar began to rise.
‘Tha’s basically tha way o’ it, kindly stranger.’
Samuel took a deep breathe. ‘Skinned, you say?’
The keeper nodded. ‘Aye, skinned indeed,’ he replied. ‘Yon guardsmen in town are tryin’ ta keep it quiet, ya see, no to alarm none o’ our travellers such as yeself. But we still hear those sounds o’ night...’ The keeper glanced out of the nearest window; it offered a distant, but clear view of the decaying suburb Samuel had earlier noted.
‘If ye be wise, young sir, ye’d keep well clear o’ Graceful. It be a sinful place, a place o’ thieves an’ murderers. Ol’ Baldric’s boy, Peter, he went there not a few hours ago, and he ain’t been seen since.’
Samuel crossed himself and bowed his head for a moment, out of sheer respect. He would stay only one night in this town, and would leave in the morning as quickly as able.
‘How much do the guards know of this? And what of your lord?’
The keeper shook his head. ‘We ain’t had no lord, not since ol’ Cobface’- he spat upon the ground – ‘ran off after the first murder. E’ wasn’ half bad, but e’ was a bloody coward when it came ta protectin’ us. Firs’ it was them bandits from the swamp, and now this...’
The keeper wandered over to the door, and unbolted it in welcome of what would hopefully be a steady evening of business. ‘As fer the guards, well, I tol’ you bout Richard already. E’s madder than anyone else o’er the whole thing, I can tell ye that. E’ll catch em, you mark my words.’
Samuel nodded. Standing, he thanked the innkeeper for his information, and made ready to depart for a short walk about the village before the sun fell completely.
The blessed... the cursed... thing, it was clearly no longer a person, slowly hauled its upper body upright and sat upon the altar, blinking its one remaining eye in confusion. Its rotting head swivelled slowly about in blind fascination, observing and yet unseeing. The flesh hung low from the face, sagging just below its empty eye socket; the skin above and bellow it had been struck completely in half, a vertical slit that was probably the thing’s cause of death. Ghastly, bloody bone was clearly visible behind the separated flap of flaccid flesh. The wrinkled, decaying area about its mouth no longer bore any resemblance to lips; they were now black, rotting things that crawled with maggots and had their outsides caked with congealed, greasy blood.
The thing slowly shifted its weight, moving gingerly as if carefully recalling its previous methods of locomotion. Apparently satisfied, it swung its bony, decomposed legs from the side of the altar, and stumbled to its feet. It landed heavily, the momentum of its haphazard arrival further tearing the already vast bloody gashes opened by the ministrations of the mysterious, deadly assembly.
Slowly, painstakingly, it began to walk, taking small, infant steps. The wild eye stared blindly on, seeming not to notice the robed figures, who stood chattering excitedly at their creation’s progress. It walked in a steady, slow circle around the altar, losing its footing once or twice on the blood-slicked stones, but correcting its balance with little problem. The robed figures moved back against the walls as the thing gained speed, moving faster, faster, taking larger strides, quickening its pace, until a steady running pace was achieved. The monk shrank back into the shadows as the thing passed close by, not breathing heavily but wheezing, a ragged, sickening sound that curdled the blood and offended the spirit.
The head figure stepped forward, and held up a hand. The thing stopped suddenly, nearly falling in the process, before righting itself and standing before his summoner. The robed man leaned forward slightly, staring it in the eye. He carefully lifted an arm, inspected it for a moment, then let it drop. Apparently satisfied, he reached for his belt, and slowly unsheathed a rusty, ancient but very sharp sword, which he held out in front of him. The loathsome thing slowly reached out and grasped the handle, holding the sword limply by its side. The head figure chuckled. He then turned suddenly to the left, and stared straight at the monk.
The monk’s heart leapt into his throat. Had he been seen? Or was the head man fooled by some trick of the shadow, some flicker of light? But all doubt was removed when the man, watched by his unholy congregation, slowly raised his hand and pointed directly at him.
It was not a request, a suggestion, or an order. It was simply there to be obeyed. And the thing heeded it.
It shrieked, an ear-splitting sound that drove the sane mad and caused the brave to panic, and leapt, sword held with two hands above its head, towards the monk.
And now here he was, fleeing from an enemy he could not escape, fighting a battle he could not win. His breathe came in ragged, short bursts, a sharp pain in his side causing him to hunch. But the thing in pursuit had no need for breathe, felt no pain, and would certainly feel no remorse.
Skidding around a corner, the terminal monk tripped on an unforseen flagstone and fell, skimming along the uneven, slippery ground and coming to a sudden, hard stop against the far wall. There he lay, coughing up blood and spitting out teeth, while the thing behind him quickly gained ground. Gathering his scattered wits, he struggled to his feet, puffing and panting. As he made ready to bolt, he heard a slight sound behind him. He turned.
The last thing Cuthbert the monk ever saw was that sagging, rotting face, eye staring, twisted, decaying mouth screaming wordless, blind hatred at him as the wicked sword came down in a horizontal stroke, burying itself four inches thick into his skull. Cuthbert’s twitching corpse fell jerking to the ground, shuddering and jolting, blood spurting forth from every available orifice. His eyes stared upwards, mad with shock and surprise in his final moment; his mouth opened and shut frantically like a fish torn from the water as his failing, cloven brain spurted its final, spasmodic effort. Then, with one final shudder, his body lay still and moved no more.
The sound of a single set of footsteps echoed upon the floor. The thing, dully observing its wanton victim, turned to see the head figure striding towards him, a look of utmost glee upon his face. Reaching the semi-skinless thing formally known as Peter, he stopped, and observed Cuthbert’s tussled body. He shrugged in a semi-committal manner.
‘Next time, kind master, do try to kill them a little more cleanly. We can’t very well use corpses with split heads now, can we Peter?’
Peter answered him with a guttural sound that gurgled about his throat and caused an ejection of bloody pus from his left eye socket. Brother Kay chuckled.
‘You are only the beginning, my foul friend. Others will follow, and I have much to do.’
He strode off towards the main chamber, beckoning for his bastardised creation to follow.