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 Arkutskian god of malice and spite. This is in the narrow west-south-west quadrant of the cemetery reserved for those who are important enough, or wicked enough, or rebellious enough to be buried alive. The standing stones carved with depictions of the gods curve away around the boundaries of the cemetery; at the cemetery’s heart stone crypts rise up in a small city of the dead protected by a circle of oaks.
Nenteract leader Leopold Gruntz Granch pauses for a moment to wipe the sweat from his eyes, then casts a withering gaze over his squad. “What in the mad gods’ names do you think you’re playing at? Boritz, you execrable excrescence of half-fetid lard! Is that shitting spade a leaning post or an implement to dig with? We’re here to work, you arses, not sleep!” But the morning sun is already warm, the sky is clear, the flies are awake, and the whole of nenteract 109 can feel in their bones that this is a day out for the children. Where in the entire continent of Osk would they rather be than here, throwing soil into the air and enjoying a break from discipline and duty and worry and care?
The inhabitants of Klupsk village had shown something almost resembling courage in refusing to volunteer for the work, and Lord Colonel Maxxemullian Cornelius Munst, blunt as always, had observed that if a man wants a job done he has to do it himself. Of course, doing the job himself 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. “Gruntz! Get to it!”
“Spit on your sister’s tits!” he’d cursed, and kicked Nenteract 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 newlyweds who’ve never yet left 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 the real world!”
The pale imitations of soldiers rose and shone: Boritz, grumbling and belching as he forced his huge feet into his huge boots and his treasured chain mail shirt down over the bulge of his belly; Pretty Shoolie, as wide as she was tall and not very tall, rolling into an abrupt and dangerous state of readiness; dark and brooding Swarf assembling a variety of knives; Chev glancing up from beneath his mighty birthmark and, though still three quarters naked, reaching for 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!”
Peter Snarkle Cramm, the old man of the crew, met Gruntz’ gaze and bit sourly at the last fractions of his fingernails. “Who gives a flying fuck about Munstie? When did the fucker ever give a flying fuck about us?”
“No one in the world gives a flying fuck about you, Snark.”
At Snark’s expression of 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 nenteract had to a mascot – proof that a soldier can be a soldier and still get old.
Riding through Klupsk an hour and a half later on a mox-drawn cart commandeered from the bridge builders, he listened with lenient good humour as the 109s shared their joy at having a day out with wthe utterly invisible villagers. The Klupskers were nowhere to be seen but were no doubt awake and alert to the grind of gravel beneath the wagon’s wheels and the dangerous presence of a heavily armed troupe passing between their drab and weary homes.
“Klupskers, you arse-wipes, get out here! Get off your mothers’ tits 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 mothers they’re shagging – it’s their goats!”
Swarf: “It’s not their goats they’re shagging – it’s their fists!”
Chev, with his coveted hammer-axe on his lap: “Klupsker’s can’t fuck – they can only be fucked!”
But the villagers failed to heed their summons as the soldiers passed and soon the village was left behind them like the last resting place of the living. Less than an hour later they had arrived at the Kusk Crypts, the unwelcoming and oppressive residence of the dead – and now Snatsh, illustrious god of malice and spite, who never knowingly forewarned an accident or a disaster, gazes longingly down at them as they work, his dark thoughts devising a future no one in 109 could possibly wish for… but the soldiers in the nenteract are too hard-nosed to worry about an intangible gods’ intangible ruminations. Though hounded by the Klupskian flies which had gathered about 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 has been given a grave to dig: an arm and a half wide; two and a half arms in length; two arms deep. But none of them are taking it seriously, or thinking for even an instant who the graves are for and whether it is justice or treachery that the graves serve. Up to his knees in the excavation next to Gruntz, Jonce Boritz Sirobtz hums and chuckles and then finds the breath to call out, “Hey, lads! Who’s got the martial know-how of a nanny goat’s arse?”
Swarf: “And the ineradicable intelligence of a rat’s cock?”
“Lordy Lord Munstie,” Gruntz mutters, the rest of the nenteract 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!” Infantry soldier Naif Swarf Ratch, weasel witted and weasel quick, is master of any weapon that is short and sharp – but now he’s using his long, blunt spade, between flinging out clods of earth, to beat at the flies.
“Whose mother’s sons’ uncles marry their sisters?” – which of course gets the same answer, though Snark shouts through his gap teeth, “The Niks! 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, “Nenteract One Oh Nine!”
“Whose heels hang like haemorrhoids from the Nik Senshiat’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 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 a late breakfast at Klupsk!”
The scrape of soil against spade, the thud of thrown clod… quiet laughter, muttered jokes, the drone of flies beneath the yellow-white sun in the blue sky… breath becoming laboured as the soldiers compete against one another 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 ragged shock of blond hair, waves his spade towards the gate.
“Want me to take a look?”
“Klupskers making trouble?”
“Check the mox, then take a walk around the stones.”
“Yessir, nent, sir!”
Boritz throws aside his spade, heaves his bulk out of the pit he’s three-quarters dug, and saunters away towards the god stones of Ost and Gryst, while Gruntz scrutinises the wide open stretches between the other stones on this side of the cemetery. In the warm sunlight the rolling grasses of the Mounds stretch away, north north-west, towards marshland and then the river. Beneath his swift scrutiny they appear peaceful enough. The same is true of the fields to the west, a patchwork of cabbage, kale, broccoli and bean vines all the way back to Klupsk village. The day is calm, cloudless, warm, five leagues from the stench and racket of the city of Herm, five leagues from trouble and vexation of any sort. “I could live out here,” Gruntz mutters, “ – easily. Just knock me up a shelter and I’d be as happy as Bedofelofel Bedeadkin.” Then he notices that it’s quiet enough to hear the buzzing of the flies and turns to see his nenteract leaning on their shovels and gazing at him in amusement. “What are you doing, you pumpkin fuckers? I stop digging and you all stop digging? What are we? A pretty little row of pewter mugs, sitting on a shelf and waiting to be filled with strap? Put your soft-boned spines into it. Dig! Dig! Dig!”
Nenteract 109 are a decent squad – you’d have to give them that – but they’re piss poor as grave diggers. Chev, who could snap most men in two as soon as look at them, takes dainty little shovelfuls of soil and tips them gently into a pile at his side; King Rolfe – Sunhodg Rolf Sprake – disinterestedly throws earth over his shoulder, his green eyes glittering above gaunt cheekbones and hollow cheeks; Pretty Shoolie, almost shoulder deep in the grave she’s digging… 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? Which is last but far from least? Broag, the god of lust? Or Gryst, the god of fear and rage? Whichever god it is, he or she or it must be gurgling with laughter into their broth of human blood to see a decent nenteract wasted on digging graves. Chev and Snark begin to hum a tune as they achieve waist-height in their respective pits, while King Rolfe, long, lanky and tireless, has already finished his hole and strolls over to start on Boritz’ grave, pausing only for a moment to exchange moon-eyed glances with Tannic Porl Stang. Porl runs soil-stained fingers through a tousled mop of brown hair, twitches his lopsided chin in a grin, bends back to his work. Watching them, Gruntz imagines his nenteract as a single, indomitable creature: very capable, very dangerous, and virtually impossible to kill. “The best nenteract 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 – and that’s me.”
“No, that’ll be me.” King Rolfe: never to be outdone.
They’re almost finished when a shout of alarm jerks Gruntz upright like a hog’s tongue shoved deep between his buttocks. He spins round, spade in hand, to see Boritz shambling out from between the god stones of Grist and Ost, a javelin standing up from his belly like an erection, its bloody ejaculate pouring in a torrent down his thighs.
“Fucking Gryst!” Gruntz whirls round. “Ract! All of you! Down! Take cover! Get down!”
But it’s already a million years too late for Mik. She takes an arrow through the throat before the words have left Gruntz’ mouth – and falls out of sight as limply as a rag doll. 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, friend.
It is typical of Jonce Boritz Sirobtz that he fully understands the trick of contentment. Some men have that knack. Boritz likes who he is. He adores his life – and always has done. He likes to laugh at himself, at the world, at the vast, amusing spectrum of human insanity that began with his grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents and won’t stop here. And he’s happy to share his amusement with anyone who will listen – preferably over a beaker of strap or a flagon of ale. He will laden you – between snorts of disgust or bellows of laughter – with everything you could ever need to know about his extraordinary domestic life, his extraordinary soldier’s life, and his extraordinary love life too, while his stomach bulges out from above his belt like a pregnancy eight months complete and jerks with laughter as if taking a kicking from twin foetuses impatiently locked inside. He’ll admit that his profession is one of killing, but will also quickly tell you that he hasn’t killed a man for ten years or a woman or child for twelve or thirteen, and that at least one of the latter had been entirely by accident when he wasn’t even paying attention. Boritz pretends at being clumsy, even in battle, but is in fact a ruthless and effective soldier. The last men he killed – and killed with panache – were part of the long and tedious campaign against the Burstj, a rebel army of thieves, good-for-nothings, Spitzian fugitives and pretend-refuseNiks terrorising the farms of South Eastern Arkutsk and the fiefdoms of South West Nikolsk. The rebels had successfully played off the Nikolskian militias against the puppet army of occupied Arkutsk for ten years, until a spasm of unparalleled unity brought the two forces down in a pincer movement towards the ocean, trapping the Burstj and forcing them south – to ultimately slaughter them in a running battle along the wide open beaches of the Sarkinoma Gulf. There had of course been absolutely no hope of escape for the rebels by then: no one swims away into the Ocean of Kund and survives to tell the tale.
And now Boritz is living the good life: six month tours on the currently 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 or two 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 crouches like a gold- and copper-scaled predator within the passionate embrace of Herm city. Straw beds, regular food, sex with women who have never fought a battle, never been raped by the Spitz or seen their husbands die beneath the sword… it was enough to gentle the hardest man, and Jonce Boritz Sirobtz, behind his mask of self-mocking humour, is amongst the very hardest…
So it is as a contented man that he strolls between the gate stones of the Kusk Crypts to find Nenteract 109’s two 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 flagrant udders! Bring back our beasts!”
Boritz breaks into a run – not directly towards the thieves but to the pile of weapons that the nenteract 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 glinted on its razor sharp blade, he charges after the thieving gypsy fucks – mere civilians by the look of them without the faintest glimmer of a hope against a man of Boritz’ experience, prowess and girth.
But the women aren’t gypsies, and they aren’t civilians, and they aren’t planning to be an easy fuck. The javelin that one of them turns and expertly flings towards him takes Jonce Boritz Sirobtz directly in the belly, piercing his leather bodice and chain mail tunic as if they were so much paper.
Boritz spins one hundred and eighty degrees beneath the impact. “Wha – ? Sybrog and Smert!”
He stands there for an instant, skewered, looking back towards the abandoned cart, then twists around his wound to stare for a moment in horror at the refuseNiks – before breaking into something approximating a run.
By the gods’ miserable lies – CHAIN FUCKING MAIL…!
But at least his most treasured possession fends off the missiles that punch against his back as he stumbles towards the entrance stones of the Crypts. 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, penetrates through it into his rib cage, ends up scratching – he can feel the fucker – on the inside wall of his chest as he runs.
Ost’s shitting phlegm!
He drops his sword, takes a grip on the jouncing javelin to hold it steady, holds its shaft in front of him like a massive wooden cock as he staggers between the gate stones of the two gods, Ost and Gryst, their sneering faces welcoming his return to a world he had begun to forget, the world that the nine vile gods love: the world of battle, fear, deceit, death. Weakened by their gaze he slows, staggers out into the cemetery. He looks at the refuseNik weapon in his hands. Blood is oozing from his wound, around his crotch, over his thighs. There’s a trail of blood behind him; his fine boots are leaving behind footprints in his own blood.
Gryst’s snot… this soldier’s not going to survive.
Looking towards the leering stone of Snatsh he can see his comrades straightening and bending at their work, straightening and bending, straightening and bending, straightening and bending, like mechanical toys in the graves they’re digging, while clouds of flies and crows circle joyfully above their heads. Are his comrades singing? Boritz fills his chest with enough air to shout, shouts – but blood not air sputters from between his lips.
“Get down, by Ost!” his sputter uselessly says.
He tries again – “Gruntz!” – but manages nothing more than a blurt of pain. The world softens before his eyes like melting wax, like a world of dream, a mirage. Wooden markers in nearby graves seem to move before an invisible wind. Suddenly the ground heaves and the god stones themselves – Zimitra and Snatsh and Kupritzia – they begin to rise into the sky… Or is it him who’s falling? Is he – ?
Boritz manages another staggering step towards his nenteract. Gruntz! Rolfe!
He tries to shout again, “Get down! Shitting refu –” but he’s panting too hard and there’s too much blood bubbling up from his lungs. He takes another step – and at last manages a feeble call – words made of ochre, 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 belly-laugh. These – can these really be – are these the last words the great Jonce Boritz Sirobtz will ever say…? – as he falls face down into the dirt and the refuseNik javelin completes his rape from coccyx to groin…
Gooble Chev Yeltz looks up into the perfect sky. He’d dropped like a stone into the grave he’d been digging when he heard Gruntz shout – catching out of the corner of his eye a prismatic vision of the fatal arrow killing Mik. Then he’d just lain there, looking up, feeling a sense of peace and resignation settle over him like a shroud; and a sense of preparedness and readiness and anger, too. And of pity and self-pity, and of love, hatred, frustration, remorse, bitterness, jubilation, calm. All human emotions come to him in the earthly hole that might soon be his grave. He listens to the shouting, hears the slithering impacts of another volley of arrows hitting 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 forever into foreverness, stretching down into his very soul and filling it with joy – and with 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 compliment her on how deadly she is with her homemade spike. He wishes he was lying next to Gretchin back in Herm, naked as the day he was born, filled, just as he was now, with every possible human emotion. Gretchin is a whore, and she is not exactly beautiful… and no one ever said she would be his mother’s idea of a good catch… but when was Gooble Chev Yeltz a good catch? Since when? And Gretchin loves him in any case, has always loved him, despite his birthmark, despite his profession or hers, despite anything and everything, and now, belatedly, he realises that he loves her too, that he has always loved her, will always love her, will love her for the rest of his life.
His fingers twitch, hungry for the grip of his hammer axe, abandoned by the entrance to the crypts – leaning against the wheel of the cart that had carried them here. Ridiculous superstition! Ridiculous superstition had compelled them to leave their weapons beyond the cemetery’s boundaries as if it were blasphemy to enter this place armed. But who would have thought you needed weapons I a place where everyone around you is dead? Ridiculous superstition!
He reviews 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 will do for a shield. There’s a pile of the larger stones he’d put to one side as he dug – but he’ll have to kneel up, reach out of the grave and expose himself to the archers to get at those. And what use are stones against an enemy so well armed? The arrows flickering through the blue sky above him are testament to their uselessness. AntiNiks – refuseNiks – loyal to the man who will be buried here later on this very day, loyal to the same Count that he would have been loyal to if he had not been part of an army that knew its place beneath the hegemony of Nikolsk and understood that fighting the rebel cause from hideouts in the forests is fine for people who didn’t mind living like animals in caves… Turning a real army – the Arkutsk army – to face in a direction opposite from that in which it had faced for two hundred years was not something that could be done so easily, not from hideouts in the forest, not in a month or even a year and certainly not overnight.
How long do I lie here?
He rolls onto his knees, takes a quick look over the edge of his grave. There are twenty soldiers or more in refuseNik yellow and green… Porl, standing behind King Rolfe, sends shot after shot into their midst, striking at least one refuseNik dead as arrows flickers a hair’s breadth away from the nape of Chev’s neck and he has to duck. After a moment 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. Swarf and Pretty Shoolie are shouting something to Gruntz. Let’s charge them? Is that what they are saying? Then he’s got his helmet. It’s fur rimmed with a spike pointing up to the sky. An arrow bounces from it as he lifts his head again. RefuseNik fuckers. He’s got his squirrel-skin waistcoat, which he wraps around his forearm as an impromptu sort of armour.
Spade, dagger, helmet… So what now?
He settles back down in his pit, rests his spine against the cool earth. “Gretchin… good woman… keep a lookout for my spirit. He’ll tell you I love you.”
He begins to whistle tunelessly between his teeth as the battle rages overhead.
Why hurry to fight when, soon enough, the battle will wash over him like the rising tide?
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’ll somehow manage that.
He knows he has that.
Well, that was yet to be seen.
He stands unprotected at the side of the grave that Boritz had been digging and inspects the new arrivals. There are perhaps twenty-five soldiers – men, women, girls, boys – all in dirty tunics of yellow and green. Four or five archers are concentrating on Gruntz, who lobs 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 the one Boritz had been digging, scrabbling at the pile of earth he had recently dug up, picking out stones suitable for his sling. Rolfe takes time out to watch him. A second… maybe two… Two seconds during an ambush can feel like a long time, and he wants to take a long time. He wants to imprint on his mind this last image of Porl, slender, strong, genuine… tough, resourceful and yet sensitive at the same time. He doesn’t want to ever let go, in these two, everlasting seconds, of his overwhelming, head-spinning upsurge of adoration and love.
He drops his spade, strides 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 strides back to Porl’s grave, meets Porl’s gaze for a brief, fleeting infinity of time, stops there, spins round, then, finding in himself a place of ruthless calm, turns to face his opponents. An arrow flickers towards him. With the blade of his sabre he flicks it absent-mindedly aside, stares down the length of his nose at the archer daring to insult him with the feebleness of her attack.
He hears Porl jump up behind him, abandoning the shelter of the grave, his sling cracking as a stone speeds over Rolfe’s shoulder to slam into the face of an approaching swordswoman. She drops where she stands. One refuseNik dead. No question about that.
“Rolfe?” – Rolphe just wanted to hear his voice!
“This was your idea, was it?”
“To die at your side?”
“To kill so many of these fuckers that we live to tell the tale…”
“That was your idea.”
Crack. Another woman in yellow and green – the archer – 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 while King Rolfe knocks aside those which 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 the 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 goes 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 his face.
Then the giant with the mace and sword is stalking forward, trailed by three swordswomen and a boy with a sunburst flail. Porl sends one last shot 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 the blood’s 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 Rolfe’s left arm with a flail.
Porl steps forward, sweeps the feet from beneath a swordswoman and knocks her to the ground. He steps casually on her face as he turns to tackle another, only to lose the spade and half his right hand to the dextrous blade of the third. Almost as compensation he kills the second woman with his dirk, then, as Rolfe circles the boy flailer, he’s fighting for his life against the woman who took arm.
Rolfe fights on at his lover’s side – like a madman, he must admit, but 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.”
Rolfe sees Porl fall as he takes a massive blow from the flail to his chest, then loses his sling arm at the elbow from an incredible backward swipe by the woman fighting Rolfe.
Rolfe stops fighting then. He’s growing faint from blood loss anyway. He flings his spade towards the swordswoman’s face, turns to see Porl slump forward to the ground.
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 Nenteract Leader Gruntz stooping to pick up the sabre from fingers that had once been his, in the same movement taking off the flail wielder’s head and vanishing from view.
“I love you,” Porl whispers, or may have whispered.
Were those real words in the real world?
Rolfe 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 he rarely discards. As the battle begins Shoolie sees him kill three refuseNiks within minutes, with knives seeming to leap from their holsters into his hands 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!”
“Alive and kicking!” she replies, ducking an arrow as it flies close by. Swarf drops his dagger, grabs her double-bladed scythe and flings it to her. It sinks blade first into the mound of rich soil at the foot of her grave, then his 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. “Near miss!” Shoolie observes. “Stay down. I’m coming!”
“You stay down!” Swarf replied. “I’ll give the call!”
“I’ll give the call!”
Shoolie slips a knuckle scythe over her left hand, grips her hand scythe with her right, and prepares to leap from the shelter of her grave after taking 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 and calmly bats away arrows with his sabre like a man reluctantly participating in a child’s game.
Chev is peering over his fresh mound of earth, his hammer axe on the lip of his pit, waiting for the enemy to draw closer, while Old Man Snark… is nowhere to be seen. ‘s why he’s grown old…Swarf muses.
Boritz – 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’s planning for them. Twenty arms away, they are notching fresh arrows to their bows. If they come much closer the arrows will drive straight through Swarf’s arbitrary shield and straight into his skull.
At least another fifteen yellow and greens saunter behind the archers, with swords, maces, axes, pikes, halberds, spears and flails. Out of the corner of her eye, running towards the stone of the god Snatsh, Shoolie spots an archer and a spearsman in pursuit of someone fleeing towards the fields west of the Crypts.
She grunts. Time to make up her mind. “Swarf – you ready?”
She grins across at him. He grins back. “Kill and die.”
“Chev?” she calls.
From his grave the solid axeman responds, “Fuck, yes!”
“THEN 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 half-hearted wooden grave marker, and they’re all charging towards the refuseNiks, weapons to hand and outraged loyalty in their hearts.
“Arkutsk!” Shoolie shouts. “Soldiers of Arkutsk!”
“We are the soldiers of Arkutsk, you fools!” shouts a bearded giant of a man wielding both a mace and a sword – but by then Shoolie’s killed the nearest of the two archers with a rising slash across the throat while eviscerating the other with the return stroke.
Swarf kills two more before being gutted by a pike-wielder; Chev kills three before he’s hammered to the ground by the giant; Shoolie kills another and then she’s hamstrung by some girl with a child’s sword, falling forward at the feet of the bearded giant.
“Gods’ accursed lies!”
Then she’s rolling over to witness the conclusion of her life as the heel of the giant’s boot slams down into her face.
Old Man Snark is already crawling towards the perimeter of the Crypts by the time Mik, her throat arrow-feathered, crumples backward into her grave. He hadn’t got old by being brave or slow and he’d hit the ground the instant Boritz’ warning had heralded the attack. Now, keeping low, not using his legs at all, dragging his body elbow over elbow between tufts of grass and the low mounds of graves, cursing like a snake through his gap teeth, he’s at least twenty-five arms away before he hears the first clash of blade on blade.
“Gryst is evil, Broag accursed, Snatsh is wicked, Mukushu worse…”
The god of malice, Snatsh, is only ten arms away when a spear thuds into the turf by his head.
“Newt’s shitting 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 their old Nenteract leader Sponzic said before dying of the 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 seconds later he’s up and sprinting, outdistancing enemies and the persistent flies, away from the crescent of god stones, straight out into a field of purple cabbages, hurdling the balls of leaves with a certain aged, madcap exhilaration – thinking cabbages! cabbages! an embarrassing place to die – but it’s only forty arms wide and then, there ahead of him, miraculous fucking bean vines, tall enough to hide amongst, dense enough to provide some halfway decent cover.
Thirty arms away, then twenty. An arrow flies over his head, but archers don’t hit targets that duck and weave like golem on strap – and this gap-toothed old fool can certainly duck and weave! Fifteen arms. Ten. Then he sees the ditch. Gruesome Ost! Yet this old man can do more than duck and weave – see him jump! Four arms, 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 rolling, crawling, scuttling 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 of the bean vines at the limpid blue of the sky and thinking, Breath quietly, damn you! Don’t make a sound!
He stretches his mouth wide as a snake, as wide as the hinges of his jaw will allow – lets the air pour in, pour and out, in and out, in and out, like waves on a beach, while he struggles to listen for the sounds of pursuit over the sound of his own breathing. Why jump a ditch? Whatever the refuseNiks are doing here, would they really care if one old squint escapes? Why 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 beans and their triangular, withe supports. Good. Let the refuseNiks get lost.
Head for the road or make for the Mounds? No one would be fool enough to follow him over the Mounds and into the marshes. It’s too easy to die there. Miss your step and you’re drowning in slime, no matter how well armoured or armed.
But on the Mounds he’ll be exposed.
Stick to the Klupsker’s fields.
His pursuers have crossed the ditch. He can hear them shouting – asks himself How many? Three? Four?
He only hears two voices.
That’ll be the archer… and the one with the spear who almost caught him at the start.
If they’re following him here, they must be confident of the nenteract: confident that their comrades are killing his.
He stops moving. Pulls out the Xerxes: a dangerous black spike, no guard, just a naked, crenulated grip.
The refuseNiks are crashing through the tall crop, one of them heading straight for him.
He eases around to face the way he’s 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 as he bustles through the vines, squawking like a chicken, letting anyone and everyone know where he is.
Then the boy emerges between plants and Snark’s straight on him, smashing him in the face and knocking him to the ground. His forearm fall across the boy’s mouth to stifle him – then one stab, two, and it’s done.
A spasm, a shudder, but no more inhalations. The boy lies still: warm, silent and dead beneath him.
Snark – Peter Snarkle Cramm by name – crawls off the boy’s 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 thin beard, and Old Man Snark, balding, gap-toothed and vicious as death.
“I’ll give you a chance,” Snark says. “Fuck off back to your traitor friends and you’ll live.”
The blade of the spear shifts to point at Snark’s face, then sinks towards the ground. Flies gather around their heads as they warily take each other’s measure. Then the refuseNik nods, begins to back away, turns, begins to run.
You can’t run fast over farmer’s tilled earth. Snark’s dagger slams into the base of the refuseNik’s neck like a message from the gods. Cuts through his spinal cord. Drops him between the vines like a stone.
Now Snark is properly armed. A dagger, a spear. He chooses not to go back for the boy’s bow. Instead he searches the spearsman’s body, finds a money pouch, pockets it, then, with an eye on the Crypts, sets a steady pace across the fields towards the village of Klupsk.
The fly finds something fascinating about the corner of his mouth. Gruntz swipes at it. Once, twice, three times – three swipes and it’s gone. Flies know when they’re not wanted: the first swipe might be luck, the second coincidence, but the third…? Instinct and intelligence are not always different things. Gruntz’ law of swipes doesn’t apply to refuseNiks. Three setbacks is nothing to them. They’ve had a thousand setbacks over the last two hundred years and they’re still here, fighting for the liberation of Arkutsk. Where by the nine gods had they come from? Thirty, forty, maybe even fifty rebels couldn’t have traipsed down the Skolm road in broad daylight. The news of their approach would have sped before them like wildfire. Nor could they have come from the Klupsk’s fields to the south…the elusive villagers would have made plenty of noise about that… 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, from the Forest of Skeld. Forests are always home and hiding place to bandits and thieves, to murderers, marauders and miscreants: the bastard progeny of poverty, despair and hope.
He edges around the flank of the oak that’s presently shielding him from view. Perhaps a hundred oaks circle the city of stone coffins and burial chambers at the heart of the cemetery, final destination for the aristocracy of Herm – a cosmopolis of sarcophagi with, at its centre, in a great rising heap: the Crypts of the Counts. He leans back against the gnarled flank of the oak. The rebels know he is here. They saw him run for cover and began to set out in chase, then turned back at a leader’s barked orders to make sure whatever was left of Nenteract 109 by the freshly dug graves was down and never getting up again.
The best infantry nenteract in the NikArk army, slaughtered and lying in ready-made holes.
Enough to make a man blind with rage…
A perfect number of freshly dug graves, with only his own yet to fill. Beyond them leer the three god stones: Zimitra, Snatsh and Kupritzia …enemies of all that is human.
Around the edge of the tree he sees the refuseNiks calmly strolling towards him: men, women, youngsters even, in their tunics of yellow and green, meandering amongst old graves like friends gathered for a picnic. “Take your time,” Gruntz whispers. “Take your time you turds…” 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! even thirty! arms, spinning through the air to smash straight into the white, waiting face of a boy with a pike. Then Gruntz ducks back, retrieves the sabre and to the sound of curses and bellows of anger races across the ornamental gardens and into one of the narrow passageways between the ancient grey slabs of the crypts. Once out of view he stops. His heart is pounding as if trying to burst from his chest. Even here, in the shadows, flies dart backward and forward in their desperate quest for human sweat. Carved on the crypt in front of him: an image of Lady Anastasia of the Henk family, beloved sister and mother and aunt, wife to Lord Monstram Henk, a man who now lies at her side, who was himself third son of Lord Stanislav Leonash Henk, who was brother to Count Miazjan Philip Henk… who died in the battle of Stigz. The Kusk Crypts reek of history – all the way back to the days when Arkutsk was free.
Cold stone on his back; the dead all around him; too many opponents to possibly defeat, and an insufficiency of weapons. A two-handled urn sits 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 behind the corner of the crypt; waits.
Movement. The pad of cautious footsteps. Insufficiently stealthy. Gruntz steps around the edge of the crypt, sends Anastasia’s urn flying through the air. The yellow and greens duck down beneath the missile and then he’s on them, Rolfe’s sabre severing the carotid of one then sweeping back to slice 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 deals with him too and he’s down, the sound of the smashed urn still echoing off the cold grey stone.
Two down – another fifty to go.
Gruntz retrieves the refuseNik’s sword, grips it left-handed, keeps Rolfe’s sabre in his right, moves back along the wall of Anastasia’s crypt, turns the corner to find another four refuseNiks waiting for him. Gryst’s third eye! Too many. Too soon. He spins around, races down a wider path directly towards the rising flanks of the Crypts of the Counts. Everywhere he looks fighters in yellow and green tunics casually emerge from the gaps between the homes of the dead, colourfully moving from light to shadow, from shadow to light, confident of their prey’s approaching death.
Gruntz shares their confidence.
Up to the front door to the crypt 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 higher Counts. Stone warriors surround him – and carved depictions of battle and war. Arrows slam against the carved grey stone at his side. He glances back. Yellow and green archers notch three bladed arrows to ebony bows.
“I’ll not play hide and seek.”
He keeps climbing, up to the Great Count’s Crypt – uses the ornate carvings on its sides to haul himself up to its steep, gabled roof, then finds himself at the very pinnacle of this strange resting place of the dead, and spins around on a small flat dais, gazing out above the tops of the oaks, gazing out towards The Mounds, towards the marshes and then the great River Stultz – and yes, he can even see a glint of sunlight on water, there to the west…
Longing, love – love for this province, for this country – fill his chest as if the air is something tangible, a substance which he draws in and which transforms him into gold, and then the arrows begin to flicker past his head.
He spins around, scans the maze of crypts beneath him, leaps down, foothold to precarious foothold, finally tumbling into a narrow passageway between crypts perhaps two thousand years old… He runs to where a shelf opens out above the first level of crypts. Four choices: four avenues of escape – or non-escape… all with refuseNiks running down them towards him. There are four ways to run, and down one only one opponent blocks his way. He takes that path, racing 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 but with a short chain, whistles through the air towards him. He drops to one knee, the flail skimming the air above his head, almost falls to his side, catches his balance in an instant, then he’s up and at the woman, lifting her right off her feet with a single upthrust of King Rolfe’s sabre. Die! Die! Die! When she’s clearly dead he tries to withdraw the blade but it won’t shift, the woman held against him and jerking like a marionette as he tugs at the grip. “Kupritzia’s crotch!” He releases the sabre, leaps over the corpse, swaps the short sword to his right hand, races down a passageway that emerges once again into the sweep of gardens – charges across these towards the nearest oak. The archers are quickly onto him: he’s hit by an arrow that lodges into the flesh at the back of his left thigh. He staggers, almost falls, but keeps on, weaving between two oaks and 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, thieves and rebels and vagabonds and miscreants like the very people who have slaughtered Nenteract 109. He throws himself into a grave, arrows stabbing the rich soil behind him, and crouches there, his heart racing, blood pouring from his thigh, flies already descending towards him in a swarm from the tidal reaches of the sky.
This is Mik’s grave. She lies there behind him, her eyes wide open in stony death, her hands still gripping the arrow through her throat. His fingers find the haft of a spade. Meeka Michaela Sween’s spade. “Mik? You won’t mind if I borrow this?” She twitches, or perhaps he only imagines it – but he needs to make sure. He twists to lean over her, pushes his captive sword down through her chest. “Good soldier. Good soldier,” he murmurs. Then back, peering over the lip of the grave. No hope. No chance. He quickly ducks back.
Gruntz imagines 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 futile loyalty and fleeting good leadership.
“Even your father’s fathers were not free,” he mutters to no one in particular. “And their fathers were probably slaves.”
That has been the history of the nation of Arkutsk: 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. No hope. At least a dozen refuseNiks are nonchalantly strolling towards him from the crypts, chatting to one another as if they have time to kill (which they have), some with arrows already notched to bows which they fire off with fair precision in his direction, some with hammer axes, or flails, or maces, and some with double or single-edged swords dangling limply at their sides.
Gruntz turns his back on them – takes another arrow just beneath his right shoulder blade before they grow bored of filling him full of holes.
With his lungs beginning to bubble with blood he gazes out over the ruination of his nenteract. Ogwen Shoolie Macovsky, her thickset body lying like a boulder face-up before the approaching refuseNiks. Naif Swarf Ratzch – “Weasel,” Gruntz mutters – and Shoolie, Pretty Shoolie… and Gooble Chev Yeltz, headless, beside her. “Good soldiers,” Gruntz whispers.
Dead Mik is in the grave behind him; the dead Spitzian, Tarrik Porl Stang, lying nearby across the body of dead King Rolfe; Old Man Snarkle nowhere to be seen, probably dead in the grave he dug; and Jonce Boritz Sirobtz… All he can see of the dead jovial giant is a blond shock of hair like the fleece of a domestic rabbit, 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 – a cataclysm which cannot be undone.
“Comrades,” Gruntz whispers. “Friends.”
He turns back to face the sauntering yellow and greens. Some are full bearded men; some are sour-faced women; two or three are just girls and boys. But they’re all armed: swords, flails, maces, pikes, bows – and he’s only got a spade, a short sword and a chest half full of arrows.
“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.
© 2015 Luke Andreski. All rights reserved.
The Book of Nine is © 2015 Luke Andreski. All rights reserved.