Unspin the earth once and then half again and it is dawn of the preceding day. So far there are no corpses scattered about the punitive graves of the Kusk Crypts; only the straightforwardly dead, breathless beneath their allotted burden of soil and stone. Living soldiers tramp the ground above them, sweating and cursing and beating at flies as they dig nine new graves under the forbidding gaze of Snatsh, the god of malice and spite. This is in the narrow west, south west quadrant of the cemetery reserved for those who are importantly wicked or bad. The standing stones carved with the faces of the gods curve away around the boundaries of the cemetery; at the cemetery’s heart crypts rise up like a small city within a circle of oaks.
Squad Leader Leopold Gruntzec Granch pauses for a moment to wipe the sweat from his eyes – casts a withering gaze over his squad. “What in the nine names of the gods do you think you’re at? Boritz, you execrable excrescence of lard! Is that arsing spade a leaning post? We’re here to work not sleep!” But the morning sun is already warm, the sky is clear, the flies are awake, and the whole of squad 109 know in their bones that this is a day out for the children. Where would they rather be than here, enjoying a break from normal duties and the clean country air?
The inhabitants of Slupsk village had shown something almost resembling courage in failing to volunteer for the work, and Lord Colonel Munst had observed that if a man wants a job done he has to do it himself. Doing the job himself, of course, had hardly been his intention: his orders trickled down the line of command as far as was possible and ended up ringing in Gruntz’ ear in the grey light before dawn. “Spit on your mother’s tits!” he’d cursed, and kicked Squad 109 into life, most savagely and with most enjoyment in the case of Porl and Rolfe who he once again found cradled in each other’s arms like a newly wedded couple yet to leave the marriage bed. “Rise and shine you boils on a Miramene’s dick! Rise and shine you pale imitations of pale imitations of soldiers. Unplug your arses and fart yourselves into life!”
The pale imitations rose and shone: Boritz, grumbling and belching as he forced his treasured mail shirt down over the vast expanse of his belly; Pretty Shoolie, as wide as she was tall, rolling into an abrupt and dangerous state of readiness; snarky and irritable Swarf assembling a variety of knives; Chev glancing up under his mighty birthmark and spitting on his axe; and Mik – Meeka Mikaela Sween – doing some sort of exercise with one leg stretched vertically up the damp stone wall. “Jump to it, boys and girls. Lord Cunst’s orders. Move move move!”
“Who gives a flying fuck about Lord Colonel Cunst? When did he ever give a flying fuck about us?” That was Peter Snarkle Cramm, the old man of the crew, chewing sourly at the last fraction of his fingernails.
Gruntz shrugged, snorted. “No one in the world gives a flying fuck about you, Snark.”
At Snark’s expression of disappointed self-pity Gruntz can’t help but laugh – because in fact he did care about the old fuck. Old Man Snark with his gap teeth and snarly sarcasm was the closest the squad had to a mascot – proof that a soldier could be a soldier and still get old.
Riding through Klupsk an hour and a half later on a mox-drawn cart he had commandeered from Supplies, he listened with lenient good humour as the 109s shared their joy at having a day out with the invisible villagers, nowhere to be seen but no doubt awake and alert to the grind of gravel beneath the wagon’s wheels and the dangerous presence of heavily armed men and women passing between their drab and weary homes.
“Klupskians, get out here! Get off your sisters’ arses and bring us food!” – Old Man Snark: always thinking about his next meal.
Shoolie, running a hand over her recently shaven head: “It’s not their sisters they’re fucking – it’s their goats!”
Swarf: “It’s not their goats they’re fucking – it’s their fists!”
Chev, with his coveted hammer axe on his lap: “Klupsk’s can’t fuck – they can only be fucked!”
But the villagers failed to heed their summons as the soldiers passed and soon Klupsk was left behind like the last resting place of the living; less than an hour later they arrived at the precinct of the dead.
Snatsh, illustrious god of malice and spite, gazes longingly down at them as they work, his unpleasant dark thoughts no doubt working on a future no one in 109 would wish for – but they are immune to the gods’ dark intentions. Though hounded by the villager’s flies which had gathered about the heads of the mox at Klupsk and transferred their affections to the soldiers as they removed their furs and helmets and set to work, they laugh and sing and dig.
Each soldier must dig a grave: just over an arm wide; just over two arms in length; two arms deep. Up to his knees in the grave next to Gruntz, Jonce Boritz Sirobtz finds the breath to call out, “Who’s got the martial know-how of a goat’s arse?”
Swarf: “And the intelligence of a rat’s cock?”
“Colonel Munst,” Gruntz mutters, the rest of the squad delightedly shouting the same name.
“Which Kupritzia-worshiping fucks fuck their pets for breakfast then eat them for lunch?” This is Mik – her favourite weapon a slender iron spike sharpened at both ends. Mik has imagination: her passion is the production of weapons from anything within reach.
“The Klupskers,” mouths Gruntz.
Swarf shouts, “The marrow-sucking Klupskers!” Naif Swarf Ratch, weasel witted and weasel quick, is master of any weapon that is short and sharp – but now he’s using his spade, between flinging out clods of earth, to beat at the flies.
“Whose mother’s sons’ uncles marry their sisters?” – which of course got the same answer, though Snark shouts through his gap teeth “The Niks!” while looking over his shoulder with mock nervousness – and Porl, making a joke out of his Spitzian homeland, shouts, “Mine!”
“Who are the good and noble soldiers who do everyone else’s work?”
“We do,” Gruntz murmurs, while everyone else shouts, “Squad One Oh Nine!”
“Whose heels hang like haemorrhoids from the Nik king’s arse?”
Gruntz, so quietly that no one can hear, mutters, “The usurper,” and slams his spade into the rich loam with just the impetus needed to sever a man’s head from his neck.
“Radatch!” the others shout. “Count shitting bloody Radatch!”
And so it goes until, swiping the flies and sweat from his face, Gruntz shouts, “Whose got three balls and no brains?”
“So stop playing with your dicks, get these shitting holes dug and we can invite ourselves back to breakfast at Klupsk!”
The scrape of soil against spade, the thud of thrown clod… quiet laughter, muttered jokes, the drone of flies… breath becoming laboured as they compete to finish first… and then a bellow from one of the mox, invisible beyond the gate stones at the entrance to the Crypts. Boritz straightens up, shakes soil from his blond shock of hair, waves his spade towards the gate.
“Want me to take a look, boss?”
“Klupskers making trouble?”
“Check the mox, then take a walk around the stones.”
Boritz throws aside his spade, heaves himself out of the pit he’s three-quarters dug, walks back towards the god stones of Ost and Gryst, while Gruntz scrutinises the openings between the other stones on this side of the cemetery. In the warm sunlight the rolling grasses of the Mounds stretch away towards marshland, and then the river, a little to the north. At a swift glance they appear peaceful enough. The same is true of the fields to the west, a patchwork all the way back to Klupsk village. The day is peaceful, calm, cloudless, warm, ten miles away from the stench and racket of the city, ten miles away from trouble and vexation of any sort. “I could live out here,” Gruntz mutters. “Easily.” Then he notices that it’s quiet enough to hear the buzzing of the flies. “What are you doing, you pumpkin fuckers? I stop digging and you all stop digging? Put your soft-boned spines into it. Dig! Dig! Dig!”
Squad 109 are a good squad but they’re piss poor as grave diggers. Chev, who could snap most men in two as soon as look at them; King Rolfe – Sunhodg Rolf Sprake – disinterestedly throwing earth over his shoulder, his green eyes glittering above gaunt cheekbones and hollow cheeks; Pretty Shoolie, almost shoulder deep in the grave she’s working on… a red ‘9’ tattooed on the nape of her neck beneath the salt and pepper expanse of her shaved head. Catching sight of the 9, Gruntz fleetingly asks himself, Which god is the ninth god? Broag, the god of lust? Or Gryst, the god of fear and rage? Whichever god it is, he or she will be chuckling into their broth of human blood to see a good squad wasted on digging graves. Chev and Snark begin to hum a tune as they achieve waist height in their respective pits, while King Rolfe has already finished and strolls over to start on Boris’ grave, pausing only for a moment to exchange moon-eyed glances with Tannic Porl Stang. Porl runs soil-stained fingers through a ragged mop of hair, twitches his lopsided chin in a grin, bends back to his work. Watching them, Gruntz imagines his squad as a single creature: very capable, very dangerous, impossible to kill. “Best squad in the NikArk army,” he mutters.
“What’s that, sarge?”
“Butt out. I’m talking to the only fart I can find around here worth talking to – me.”
“No, that’ll be me,” King Rolfe jokes.
They’re almost done when a shout of alarm jerks Gruntz upright like the sting of a wasp. He spins round, spade in hand, to see Boritz stumbling from between the god stones of Grist and Ost, a javelin standing up from his belly like an ugly erection, blood pouring down between his thighs.
“Fucking Gryst!” Gruntz shouts, then, “Down! Take cover! Get down!”
But it’s already a million years too late for Mik. She takes an arrow through the throat and falls out of sight. It’s the last time Gruntz will ever see her: Meeka Michaela Sween, ruthless and effective killer, inventor of her own armoury, spikeswoman, soldier, grave digger, lover and friend.
Jonce Boritz Sirobtz knew the trick of contentment. He liked who he was. He adored his life. He liked to laugh at himself, at the world, at the vast and amusing spectrum of human insanity and folly. Those were things he is happy to share with anyone who would listen – preferably over a beaker of strap or a flagon of ale. He would tell you about his extraordinary love life too, his stomach bulging out from above his belt like a pregnancy eight and a half months complete and jerking with laughter as if taking a kicking from an impatient foetus locked inside. He would admit that his profession was one of killing, but would quickly tell you he hadn’t killed a man for ten years or a woman or youngster for twelve or thirteen, and that at least one of those had been by accident. He would pretend to being clumsy, even in battle, but in fact he was a ruthless and effective soldier. The last men he killed were part of the long and tedious campaign against the Burstj, a rebel army of thieves, good-for-nothings and refuseNiks terrorising the farms of South Eastern Arkutsk and the fiefdoms of East Nikolsk. The rebels had successfully played Nikolskians off against the puppet army of occupied Arkutsk for several years, until a spasm of unparalleled unity brought the two armies down in a pincer movement towards the ocean, trapping the Burstj and forcing them south – ultimately slaughtering them in a running battle along the edges of the Sarkinoma Gulf. There had been absolutely no hope of escape: no one swims in the Ocean of Kund.
And now he’s living the good life: six month tours on the peaceful border between Nikolskian Arkutsk and Spitzian Arkutsk (much of the time spent poling up and down the River Stultz and feasting on grilled fish); a month here a month there guarding tithe wagons on their way to Nikolsk; and the latest year-long stint patrolling the walls and passageways of the palace of Herm, which crouched like a gold- and copper-scaled predator at the heart of Herm city. Straw beds, regular food, regular sex with women who had never fought a battle, been raped or seen a soldier die… it was enough to gentle the hardest man, and Jonce Boritz Sirobtz, behind his mask of self-mocking humour, was amongst the very hardest…
So a contented man strolls between the gate stones of the Kusk Crypts to find Squad 109’s mox, unharnessed, being led away by three women who glance over their shoulders with half apologetic smiles then break into as much of a trot as the reluctant beasts of burden will allow.
“Smert’s udders! Bring back our beasts!”
Boritz breaks into a run – not directly towards the thieves but to the pile of weapons that the squad left lying to one side of the abandoned cart: Chev’s hammer axe; Mik’s deadly, double-ended spike that she engineered herself; Pretty Shoolie’s two bladed scythe; Gruntz’ round shield and half-length sword; and his own mighty two-hander. Grasping the trusted broadsword and swinging it aloft so that sunlight glints on its razor sharp blade, he charges after the thieving gypsy fucks – mere women without the faintest glimmer of a chance against a man of Boritz’ experience, prowess and girth.
But the women aren’t gypsies, and they aren’t Klupskians, and they aren’t planning to be an easy fuck – and the javelin that takes Boritz in the belly is thrown by a man who appears between them dressed in the refuseNik colours of yellow and green.
Under the impact of the javelin Boritz spins one hundred and eighty degrees. “Sybrog, Mukushu and Smert!”
Boritz stands there for an instant, skewered, looking over his shoulder in horror at the refuseNiks, then breaks into a run.
So much for chain-fucking-mail!
But at least it fends off the missiles that punch against his back as he stumbles towards the entrance stones to the Crypts. Half a dozen arrows and stones rebound off his shoulders, five or six more flash past his head, then an arrow finds a weakness somewhere in the mail, stabs through his rib cage, ends up scratching at the inside of his chest as he runs. He drops his sword, takes a grip on the jouncing javelin to hold it steady, holds the pole in front of him like a massive wooden cock as he staggers between the gate stones of Ost and Gryst, their sneering faces welcoming his return to a world he had begun to forget, the world the gods love: the world of battle, war, death. Weakened by their gaze he slows to a walk. Looks down at his hands. Blood oozes out, down over his thighs. There’s a trail of blood behind him; there’s blood on his boots.
I’m not going to make it.
Looking across towards the god stone of Snatsh he can see his comrades straightenging and bending, straightening and bending, like mechanical toys in the graves they’re digging, while clouds of flies and crows circle above their heads. Are they singing? Boritz fills his chest with enough air to shout but blood not air sputters from between his lips.
“Get down, by Ost!”
He tries again – but manages nothing more than a gurgle of pain. The world wavers before his eyes like a dream or mirage. The wooden markers of the nearby graves seem to move in an invisible wind. The ground heaves and the god stones themselves – Zimitra and Skatsh and Kupritzia, Slybrog and Smert – they begin to fall down… Or is it him? Is he – ?
Boritz manages another, staggering step towards his squad. Gruntz! Rolfe!
He tries to shout again, “Get down! The enemy –” but he is panting too hard and there is too much blood rising up from his lungs. He takes another step – and at last manages a feeble shout – words made of ochre and desperation and spit – words that sounds like “Gargle – argle – boak!” Words which leave him, in the final moments of his life, almost enjoying one last laugh. These – can it really be these? – are these the last laugh-out-loud words Jonce Boritz Sirobtz will ever say… as he falls onto his face and the refuseNik javelin completes his rape from belly to groin?
Gooble Chev Yeltz looks up into the perfect sky. When he heard Gruntz shout he’d dropped like a stone to the floor of the grave he’d been digging – catching out of the corner of his eye the arrow that killed Mik. And then he’d just lain there, looking up, a sense of peace and sorrow settling over him like a shroud; a sense of preparedness, readiness, anger, self-pity, pity, love, hatred, perturbation, frustration, remorse, bitterness, celebration, calm. All human emotions had come to him in this earthy hole that might soon be his grave. He feels almost exhausted and yet jubilant as he hears shouting, hears the impact of another volley of arrows into the earth around his pit. A fly settles on the birthmark that covers half his face and he lets it sit there for a moment, then snorts, reaches up – and the miserable speck of life flickers out of reach. A hundred other winged pests hover just above the lip of the grave – but beyond them there’s the blue sky: infinite, immortal, stretching away forever, stretching down into his very soul and filling it with joy – joy and a calm blue peace.
He wishes he could speak to Mik one last time, congratulate her on that weapon she created from the thigh-bone of a mox or how deadly she was with her homemade spike. He wishes he was lying next to Gretchin back in Herm, naked as the day he was born, filled with every possible human emotion. Gretchin was a whore, and she wasn’t exactly beautiful… but she loves him, despite his birthmark, despite his profession or hers, and now he realises how much he loves her.
His fingers twitch. They are hungry for the grip of his hammer axe, abandoned back by the entrance to the crypt, leaning against the wheel of the cart that had carried them here. For ridiculous superstitious reasons they had left their weapons beyond the cemetery’s boundaries, as if it were a blasphemy to this place armed. But who would have thought you needed weapons when almost everyone around you is dead? He considers his limited arsenal. There’s the dagger in his boot. He reaches down and pulls it free. There’s the spade… thank Gryst for that: it would do for a shield. There’s the pile of the heavier stones he’d put to one side as he dug – but he’ll have to kneel up, reach out of the grave to get at those. And what use are stones against an enemy who seems to be well armed and well prepared? The arrows flickering through the blue sky above him are testament to that. AntiNiks or refuseNiks, loyal to the man who would be buried here later that day, loyal to the very same Count that Chev would have been loyal to if he had not been part of an army that knew its place and understood that fighting the rebel cause from hide outs in the forests was fine for people who didn’t mind living like wild animals in caves or burrows or the boles of trees. Turning a real army – the Arkutsk army – to face in a direction opposite to that which it had faced for a hundred years was not something that could be done overnight, in a month or even a year.
How long do I lie here?
He rolls onto his knees, takes a quick look over the edge of his grave. Twenty soldiers or more in refuseNik yellow and green… Porl standing behind King Rolfe sending shot into their midst, striking a refuseNiks dead as an arrow flickers a hair’s breadth away from Chev and he has to duck. Then he grabs his spade and uses it to reach above the lip of his grave and scrabble for the helmet and furs he’d abandoned when the digging got hot. He can hear Swarf and Pretty Shoolie shouting to Gruntz. Then he’s got his helmet: fur rimmed with a spike pointing up to the skies. An arrow bounces from it as he lifts his head again. Fuckers. He’s got his squirrel-skin waistcoat, which he wraps around his left forearm as an impromptu sort of armour.
Spade, dagger, helmet… So what now?
He settles back down in his pit. Rests his back against the dug earth. “Gretchin… Keep an eye out for my spirit. He’ll tell you I love you.”
Chev begins to whistle tunelessly between his teeth as the battle rages overhead.
Sunhodg Rolfe Sprake – ‘King Rolfe’ on account of his aristocratic manner – takes a moment to decide what he wants from the rest of his life.
Dignity? Yes. He’d somehow manage that.
He knew he had that.
Well, that was yet to be seen.
He stands, unprotected, at the side of the grave Boritz had been digging, inspecting the new arrivals. There are perhaps twenty soldiers – men, women, girls, boys – all in dirty tunics of yellow and green. Four or five archers are concentrating on Gruntz, who is lobbing stones in their direction from the grave to Rolfe’s right. Another couple of archers are pinning down Shoolie, Swarf and maybe Chev, if he’s not yet dead, a few graves down.
He can see Porl, in the grave beyond Boritz’, scrabbling at the pile of earth he had recently dug up, picking out stones suitable for his sling. Rolfe takes some time out to watch him. A second. Maybe two. Two seconds in an ambush situation is a long time. He takes a long time. He wants to imprint on his mind how he feels about Porl. He doesn’t want to ever forget this overwhelming, head-spinning sense of adoration and love.
He drops his spade, runs forward to grab his sabre and a leather jerkin which he coils around his forearm for a shield. Suddenly the refuseNiks archers see him as a threat and he’s ducking arrows as he sprints back to Porl’s grave, meets Porl’s gaze for a brief, fleeting infinity of time, stops there, spins round, and then, utterly calm, turns to face his opponents. With an absent minded disdain he slaps aside the next arrow that flickers towards him with the blade of his sabre, staring down the length of his nose at the archer whose dared to insult him with the feebleness of her attack.
Porl jumps up behind him, his sling cracking as he sends a stone speeding over Rolfe’s shoulder to slam into the face of an approaching swordswoman, dropping her where she stands. One dead. No question about that.
“This was your idea?”
“To die at your side?”
“To kill so many of these fuckers that we live to tell the tale…”
“That was your idea.”
- Another woman in yellow and green falls silently backward.
“Picking on the girls?”
“Not choosy.” Crack. A man yells, clutching his shoulder and almost decapitating himself with his own axe.
Rolfe chuckles. “I know.”
Suddenly arrows are hailing around them, King Rolfe knocking aside those that are well-aimed with casual flicks of his aristocratic blade.
To his left there’s a shout of “Arkutsk! Arkutsk!” and Shoolie, Swarf and Chev are out of their hiding places and charging towards the refuseNiks.
Funny that, Rolfe thinks: both NikArks and ResuseNiks shouting for the same nation as they fight.
Porl: “Join them?”
Rolfe: “With a sling?”
Porl, sending a precisely aimed stone into the gap between helmet and chain mail of a man with a flail. “With a spade if I have to.”
Rolfe: “Got much shot?”
“Enough. And a dirk.”
“Then we’ll stay put.”
Swarf went down, head cloven. After killing three of the enemy, Pretty Shoolie joins him: sliced almost in two by a giant wielding a sword and a mace.
An arrow tears a chunk from Rolfe’s ear and a slice through Porl’s scalp.
“Good shot,” Rolfe concedes.
Porl: “Watch.” – And the archer falls to one side, clutching her face.
Then the giant with the mace and sword is stalking towards them, trailed by three swordswomen and a boy with a sunburst flail. Porl sends one last short towards them – misses – drops his sling, picks up the spade and step alongside Rolfe.
“Shall we dance?”
The bearded monster lopes forward. His green and yellow jerkin is already covered with blood – and not his own. His mace swings low, his sword sweeps in from the side. Rolfe steps back from the mace, parries the sword, then slashes the huge fool’s unguarded throat – in the same moment as a boy steps out from behind the giant and shatters his left arm with a flail.
Porl steps forward, sweeps the feet from beneath a swordswoman and knocks her to the ground. He steps on her face as he turns to tackle another, only to lose the spade and half his right hand to the third. He kills the second woman with his dirk, then, as Rolfe circles the boy flailer, he’s fighting for his life against the remaining swordswomen, with only half a right hand, bleeding from a dozen stabs and slashes, with just a dirk and his spraying blood as weapons.
Rolfe fights like a madman at his side – like a madman with dignity and panache – keeping the flail wielding boy at bay while knocking aside sword thrusts meant for Porl.
There is never the time to say, “I love you.” Nor will there ever be time to say, “Goodbye.” Porl sees Rolfe fall as he takes a massive blow from the flail to his chest, then loses his sword arm at the elbow from the swipe of a sword.
Porl stops fighting then. He turns towards Rolfe.
The spiked ball of the flail slams down against his shoulder.
He drops to his knees.
Falls – tries to fall – across the body of the man he loves.
The last thing his eyes ever see is squad leader Gruntz stooping to pick up the sabre from fingers that had once been Rolfe’s, in the same movement taking off the flail wielder’s head and vanishing from view.
“I love you,” Porl whispers, or may have whispered. He will never be sure.
Shoolie and Swarf are armed to the teeth.
Naif Swarf Ratch is small, wiry, agile, and an artist with the small weapons which he rarely discards. As the battle begins Shoolie sees him kill three refuseNiks within minutes, with knives out of their holsters and thrown from the shoulder. He holds his large bladed spade just below the blade in his left hand, using it as a shield, and what appears to be a dagger in his right hand, which, with a flicker and click, doubles in length as a new blade emerges backward from the grip. He sidesteps one arrow then another, scuttling sideways to where Shoolie’s furs and axe lie beside a rotting memorial board. “Shoolie!” She’s in her grave but nowhere near dead, ducking when arrows fly close. Swarf drops his dagger, flings her double-bladed scythe at her, to sink blade first into the mound of rich soil at the foot of her grave, then the dagger’s in his hand again and he’s crouching behind the wooden board just as a pair of arrows slam into it, punching half their length through the rotten wood with wicked triple blades stopping within scratching distance of his nose. “Stay down!” Shoolie barks. “I’m coming!”
“You stay down! I’ll give the call!”
“I’ll give the call!”
Shoolie slips a knuckle scythe over her left hand, grips the two edge scythe in the other, prepares to leap from the shelter of her grave, takes a last moment to survey the lay of the land.
Gruntz is launching stony missiles from his grave. Porl is using a slingshot from behind the shelter of King Rolfe – who stands in front of his lover using his sabre to calmly bat away arrows like a man reluctantly participating in a child’s game.
Chev is lying peering his fresh mound of earth, his hammer axe on the lip of his pit, waiting for the enemy to come closer. Old Man Snark is… nowhere to be seen. That’s why he’s an old man…
Boritz and Michaela are dead.
A third arrow sinks into the board protecting Swarf and a fourth whistles just over Shoolie’s head. Two bowmen are indulging in a little sport before the death Shoolie intends for them. The archers, twenty arms away, are notching fresh arrows to their bows. Much closer and the arrows will drive straight through Swarf’s arbitrary shield and straight into his skull.
Shoolie can see the two archers and at least another fifteen yellow and greens, with swords, maces, axes, pikes, halberds and flails. Off to one side, running towards the stone of the god Snatsh, she spots an archer and a spearsman, seemingly in pursuit of someone fleeing towards the fields south of the Crypts.
Shoolie grunts. Time to make up her mind. “Swarf? You ready?”
“Am I fuck.”
He grins across at her. She grins back. “Kill and die.”
“Chev?” she calls out.
“Let’s do it!”
And Shoolie’s out of her grave and Chev’s out from behind his pile of stones and earth and Swarf leaps straight over his wooden shield to charge towards the antiNiks, his spade held like a shield in one hand, a double-bladed dagger in the other.
“Arkutsk!” he shouts. “Soldiers of Arkutsk!”
“We’re the soldiers of Arkutsk, you fucks!” jeers a bearded giant of a man wielding both a mace and a sword – and then Shoolie’s killed the nearest archer with a rising stab beneath her chin and is eviscerating the other with the return stroke of the scythe.
Swarf kills two more before being gutted by a coward with a pike; Chev kills at least three before he’s hammered to the ground by the giant; Swarf kills four before she’s hamstrung by some girl with a child’s sword, falling forward at the feet of the bearded giant. She rolls over to witness the conclusion of her life being achieved by the heel of the giant’s boot coming down upon her throat.
Old Man Snark was already crawling towards the perimeter of the Crypts by the time Mik, with an arrow standing proud from her right eye, crumpled into her grave. He hadn’t got old by being brave or being slow and he’d hit the ground almost before Boritz’ warning had heralded the attack. Now, keeping low, not using his legs at all, just dragging his whole body elbow over elbow, panting between his gap teeth, he’s at least six graves away before he hears the first clash of blade on blade.
“Gryst is evil, Broag accursed, Snatsh wicked, Mukushu worse…”
The base of the god of malice, Snatsh, is only ten arms away when a spear thuds into the turf by his head.
“Newt’s fucking gonads.”
Then he’s sprinting for the stone, no idea who’s after him or how many, no fixed plan on how he’s going to evade a long deserved death. What was it the old squad leader Sponzic said before dying of the all-consuming tumour that grew like a melon inwards and outwards from his belly? “Don’t pity me you fuckers! Only the wicked live longer.”
Snark dives for the turf down the side of the god stone, rolls twice, then scuttles on hands and knees like some demented insect around to the corner of the stone, falling sideways into blazing sunlight, protected from the enemy by the stone’s massive girth. But there’s no point stopping. And there’s no point fighting. His only weapon is a Xerxes dagger – yes, still there in his boot, but about as useful as a handful of feathers against a brigade of refuseNiks.. So a second later he’s up and sprinting, outdistancing enemies and the persistent flies, straight out into a field of purple cabbages, hurdling the balls of leaves with a certain madcap exhileration – thinking an embarrassing place to die but it’s only forty arms wide and then, there ahead of him: beans, miraculous fucking vines, tall enough to hide amongst, dense enough to provide some halfway decent cover.
Cover’s forty arms away, then thirty. An arrow flies over his head, but archers don’t hit targets that duck and weave like a golem on strap – and can this gap-toothed old man duck and weave! Twenty arms. Ten. Then he sees the ditch. Fucking Ost! Almost there!
And this old man can do more than duck and weave – just see him jump! Three, two, one, and he’s flying through the air, hitting the far side in a scrabbling heap, clawing his way up amongst the beans, then he’s rolling, crawling, scrabbling his way down a long aisle between the plants, smashing sideways into the next aisle, then back on his hands and knees… crawling like a demented beetle… and then he can’t do it anymore… and he’s lying on his back, beetled out, gasping for air, looking up through the green fronds at the perfect blue sky and thinking, Breath quietly.
He stretches his mouth wide, as wide as the hinge of his jaw allows – lets the air pour in and out, struggles to listen for sounds of pursuit over the sound of his own breathing. Why jump a ditch? he wonders. Whatever the refuseNiks are doing here, why would they care if one old squint escapes? Why would they bother to jump a ditch?
Better keep moving.
He rolls over, eases through to another aisle. It would be easy to get lost in the green maze of bean plants and their triangular supports of withe. Good. Let the refuseNiks get lost.
Head for the road or make for the mounds? Who would be fool enough to follow him down into the marshes? It’s too easy to die there, no matter how well armoured or armed.
But on the Mounds he’ll be exposed.
Stick to the Klupsk’s fields.
His pursuers have crossed the ditch.He can hear them shouting.
How many? Three? Four?
He only hears two voices.
That’ll be the archer… and the one with the spear which almost caught him earlier.
Snark stops moving. Pulls out the Xerxes: more a spike than a dagger: a dangerous black pinion, no guard, just a naked, crenulated grip.
The refuseNiks are crashing through the crop, one of them heading straight for him.
He eases around to face the way he’d come. Begins to move towards the sounds of the approaching soldier.
His victim has the voice of a boy. He keeps calling out to his comrade, letting anyone and everyone know where he is.
Then the boy emerges between plants and Snark’s straight on him, spinning him round and knocking him to the ground. He lets his forearm fall across the boy’s mouth to stifle him – then one stab, two, and it’s done.
A spasm, but no more inhalations.
The boy lies still, warm, silent and dead beneath him.
Peter Snarkle Cramm crawls off the body, creeps through the green vines towards the calling spearsman. When he’s two arms away he stands up. There are only the two of them: the spear-wielding refuseNik, sweating like a stream into his beard, and an old man, thin, balding, gap-toothed and vicious as death.
“Fuck off back to your traitor friends and you’ll live,” Snark says.
The blade of the spear shifts to point towards Snark, then sinks to point at the ground. Flies gather around their heads as they stare at one another. Then the refuseNik backs away, turns, begins to run.
Snark’s dagger slams into the base of his neck like a message from the gods. Cuts through his spinal cord. Drops him down between the vines like a stone.
Now Snark is properly armed. A dagger, a spear. He chooses not to go hunting for the boy’s bow. Instead he searches the spearsman’s body for a money pouch, finds it, pockets it, then, with an eye on the Crypts, sets a steady pace across the fields towards the village of Klupsk.
Gruntz swipes at a fly that seems to find something fascinating about the corner of his mouth. Three swipes and it’s gone. Flies know when they’re not what. Shame the same couldn’t be said about refuseNiks. Where the fuck had they come from? Twenty, thirty, maybe even forty rebels couldn’t have traipsed down the Skolm road in broad daylight. The news of their approach would have sped ahead of them like wildfire. And they couldn’t have come from the Klupsk’s fields to the south, and no one in their right minds would attempt an approach through the marshes to the west. But the answer is obvious: north, north east: the Forest of Skeld. Forests are always home and hiding place to bandits and thieves, murderers, vagabonds and miscreants, bastard miscegenations of fear, despair and hope.
He edges around the flank of the oak that’s presently shielding him from view. Thirty or so oaks circle the crypts, the stone coffins and burial chambers of the aristocracy of Herm, a township of sarcophagi rising, at its centre, to the Crypts of the Counts. The rebels know he is here. They saw him run for cover, set out in chase, then turned back at a leader’s barked orders to make sure whoever was left of his squad were down and never getting up again.
Squad 109 – the best infantry squad in the NikArk army.
Gruntz edges a little further around the side of the tree until he’s looking back at the quadrant of punitive graves, graveyard to his squad. A perfect number of freshly dug graves, with only his own yet to fill. Beyond them leer the god stones of Zimitra, Snatsh and Kupritzia. Accursed fucking gods… whose side are you on? Certainly not mine… All humans are the enemies of the gods of the Miramene.
The refuseNiks are strolling towards him: men, women and youngsters in their tunics of yellow and green, walking amongst old graves like friends invited to a party. “Take your time,” Gruntz whispers. “Take your time you miserable fucks…” He puts King Rolfe’s sabre down on the ground, draws a long, slim dagger from his boot, waits a little longer, then steps out from the cover of the tree and sends the dagger flying twenty-five or even thirty arms, spinning through the air to smash straight into the white, waiting face of a boy toting a pike. Then he ducks back, retrieves the sabre, and to the sound of curses and bellows of anger charges across the ornamental garden and into one of the narrow passageways between the ancient grey stone of the crypts. Then stops. His heart pounds like it wants to break free. Even here, in the shadows, flies dart to and fro in their desperate dance. Carved on the crypt in front of him: Lady Anastasia of the Henk family. Beloved sister and aunt. Wife to Lord Monstram Henk, third son of Lord Stanislav Leonash Henk, brother of Count Miazjan Philip Henk. The Kusk Crypts reek of history – all the way back to the days of free Arkutsk.
Cold stone on his back; the dead all around him, too many opponents and an insufficiency of weapons. There’s a two-handled urn by the entrance to Anastasia’s crypt. He pushes himself from the wall, picks up the urn, tips out the rainwater, dangles it at his side. The sound of the refuseNiks approaching grows closer but quieter. Gruntz draws back; turns a corner; waits.
Movement. Insufficiently stealthy. He steps back around the edge of the crypt, the urn flying through the air. As the two yellow and greens duck down beneath the missile he’s on them, Rolfe’s sabre, already severing the carotid of one, sweeping back to slice across the face of the other. The dying man falls aside, the wounded man staggers back, dropping his sword, clutching his hands to what’s left of his nose and eyes, then Gruntz is on him and he’s down, the sound of the smashed urn still echoing off the cold grey stone.
Gruntz retrieves the sword, grips it left-handed, the sabre in his right, charges back along the wall of Anastasia’s crypt, takes the corner to find four refuseNiks waiting for him. He spins around, races down a wider path directly towards the Crypts of the Counts. Everywhere he looks yellow and greens appear amongst the homes of the dead, moving between light and shadow, shadow and light, confident of their prey’s approaching death.
Gruntz shares their confidence.
Up to the front door of Lord Marek Leopold Bronch. But there’s no moving the massive stone doors – no hiding there – so he starts to climb, over Leopold’s final home, up to the noble crypts of the High Counts. Stone warriors surround him – and depictions of battle and war. Arrows begin to slam against the carved grey stone. He looks back. Everywhere: yellow and greens notching sleek, three bladed arrows to ebony bows.
“I’ll not duck and hide.”
He scans the maze of crypts. Jumps back down into a narrow passageway. Runs to where it opens out over the first level of crypts. There are four ways to run, and down one only one opponent blocks his way. He takes that path, running headlong towards the approaching soldier. Her skin is jet black and she shows him a wide white grin. The head of a morning star flail, long handled and short of chain, whistles through the air towards him. He drops to one knee, almost falls to his side, then he’s up, lifting the woman from her feet with a single thrust of King Rolfe’s sabre. He tries to withdraw the blade but it won’t shift, the woman falling backward to the ground and jerking like a marionette as he tugs at the grip. “Kupritzia’s crotch!” He jumps over the corpse, swapping the short sword to his right hand, races down the passageway to emerge once again into the sweep of gardens, charges across these towards the nearest oak, zigzagging, ducking to avoid the arrows, hit at least once by an arrow that stays in place, lodged into the flesh of his thigh. Then out into the open, to where it all began, amongst the bodies of his friends, amongst the nine dug graves, in the punitive sector of the Kusk Crypts, reserved for miscreants and vagabonds and rebels and thieves, like the very people who have slaughtered his squad. He jumps down into a grave, an arrow thudding into the rich soil beside his head, and crouches there, his heart racing, blood trickling from his thigh, a swarm of flies already descending towards him from the tidal reaches of the sky.
This is Mik’s grave. She’s lying behind him, her eyes wide open in stony death, her hands still gripping the arrow through her throat. His fingers touch the haft of a spade. Meeka Michaela Sween’s spade. “Mik.” She twitches, so he twists to lean over her, pushes his captive sword down through her chest. “Good soldier. You’re a good soldier.” Then he turns back. Glances over the lip of the grave. Quickly ducks back.
He sees himself cowering in the grave, the yellow and greens strolling up in the brilliant sunshine to fill him full of arrows, until he’s little more than a pin-cushion testament to rebellion and revenge.
“Even your father’s fathers were not free,” Gruntz mutters. “And their fathers were probably slaves.”
That has been the history of their nation, to be invaded and divided and invaded again.
He pushes himself upright. Uses the blade of the spade to swat aside one arrow and then a second. Then he’s out of the grave, taking an arrow in the shoulder as he lowers his guard. And he’d been right. A dozen refuseNiks are nonchalantly strolling back towards him from the crypts, chatting to one another as if they have time to kill, some with arrows notched to bows which they casually loose with decent to fair precision in his direction, some with hammer axes, or flails, or maces, some with double or single-edged swords dangling limply at their sides.
Gruntz turns his back on them – takes another arrow just inside his right shoulder blade before they grow bored of filling him full of holes.
With his lungs starting to bubble blood he gazes out over the ruination of his squad. Ogwen Shoolie Macovsky, her thickset body lying like a boulder face-up before the approaching refuseNiks. Naif Swarf Ratzch – “Weasel,” Gruntz mutters – and Gooble Chev Yetz, fallen, headless, beside her. “Good soldiers,” Gruntz whispers.
Mik’s in the grave behind him; the Spitzian, Tarrik Porl Stang, is lying across the body of King Rolfe; Old Man Snarkle is nowhere to be seen, probably dead in the grave he dug; and Jonce Boritz Sirobtz… All Gruntz can see of the jovial giant is a blond shock of hair, down on the ground between the entrance stones of Ost and Gryst.
He registers all this in the instant it takes to know that you have been hit by a cataclysm which cannot be undone.
“My comrades,” Gruntz whispers. “My friends.”
He turns back to face the sauntering yellow and greens. Some are full bearded men; some are sour-faced women; some are just girls and boys. But they’ve got swords, flails, maces, pikes, bows – and he’s got a short sword and a spade and a chestful of arrows.
“Misbegotten outgets of a cockroach’s squint…” – and then he’s charging towards them – and flails whir and maces swing and swords lift to greet him.
© 2014 Luke Andreski. All rights reserved.
The Book of Nine is © 2014 Luke Andreski. All rights reserved.