Happiness

December 9, 2017

Hymn 909

The Immortal World

 

 Soap bubbles caught by the wind and flung

High up towards the smiling sun

In rainbow colours gaily dressed

Once loved, twice treasured and three times blessed

However short their blessed flight

Reflect life’s radiance and light

So we each float careless and free

From evolution’s destiny

And glitter and flash and shine so bright

With creation’s joy, creator’s light

And with momentous strength create

The immortal world in perfect state

 

There is no time, this time is all

Where civilisations rise and fall

And memories of our fleeting lives

Still shine like stars in timeless skies

And lives the folk of past times lived

Forever remain a timeless gift

There is no time tho’ time seems king

Of matter, space and everything

Yet all these things serve but to show

The beauty of the here and now

 

Perception’s moment, the phoenix “I”

Is ever reborn and does not die

But lays its mark on timeless slate

Where time has neither heft nor weight

And happy times, joy’s every spark

Carve words of light upon the dark

And when our world grows pale and old

And when the stars grow dim and cold

 

 

 

Our lives of joy will be retold

As time inverts and stars reform

Our words of love will be reborn

 

Soap bubbles caught by the wind and flung

High up towards the smiling sun

In rainbow colours gaily dressed

Once loved, twice treasured and three times blessed

However short their blessed flight

Reflect life’s radiance and light

So we each float careless and free

From evolution’s destiny

And glitter and flash and shine so bright

With creation’s joy, creator’s light

And with momentous strength create

The immortal world in perfect state

 

…..

Copyright Luke Andreski 2017

Luke Andreski has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

All rights to publication, distribution or serialisation, in any form or in any media, are reserved by the copyright holder. No part of The Book of Nine may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission in writing of Luke Andreski.

http://www.lukeandreski.com

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The Book of Nine – Postscript to Addendum Four

May 29, 2017

 

A Speculation Upon Religion, as recounted by Fylos of Zoomaria

 

“What is religion?” asks Hanrahan Yohan Sebastian Brùge, turning his palms to the sky in perplexity. “What are religions? How should we describe them? Where are the words?”

My master speaks, as he often does, in a manner telling me he is about to answer his own question. He strokes his chin, leans forward with a glint in his eye, is about to continue when, abruptly, the sage of Lutz interrupts. “The answer is easy,” Skotzolheimer says. “Religions are dream-worlds for those who cannot face the existence into which they are thrown, a sop for the weak minded… Surely that is description enough? They are baubles of thought for those who desire a world of fantasy instead of a world of fact. You must surely agree with that? They are jee-jaws for those too timid to behold with a steady gaze the world before their eyes.”

Skotzolheimer is wizened and ancient, a man of great distinction, whose legs and arms are as thin as the bones within them but who possesses the head and shoulders of a giant. He is renowned throughout Utsk for his wisdom and his skill with words, achievements I now immediately apprehend. Yet my master, Hanrahan Yohan Sebastian Brùge, is undaunted. He chuckles, scrutinising the sage fondly. “Well put, my friend, well put. But there can be many definitions can there not? And some more apposite than others? Let me share one which appeals to me more than most, more even than your wise words, though perhaps only because I have yet to understand them. It is this: that religion is a wedge driven between folk, designed expressly and specifically to be the indicator of difference, the creator and perpetuator of otherness, the abyss between tribes.”

“Oh, very good, very good!” Skotzolheimer, or more fully Gabriel Marqueuesay Skotzolheimer III, ancient though he is, claps his hands like a child. “Very good, dear Yohan. But let me offer another… What of this? ‘Religion is a tool used by the cynical to control the susceptible, a lever used by the greedy to control the gullible, an angle employed by manipulators to control the manipulable’?  What of that? What of that? Is not that a deeply satisfying definition?”

“Profoundly satisfying, my dear friend. Deeply so. Yet I have another: religions are, if you will permit me to offer a more simple diagnosis, ‘Words which bestow authority without right’…”

“Indeed! Indeed!” Skotzolheimer enthuses. “A well-turned phrase! Pithy and pointed! Almost cruel in its precision. ‘Bestow authority without right.’ Nice, nice, very nice. But equally to the point, perhaps: ‘Words giving superiority to the few while diminishing the many’?”

“Ah, yes,” my master agrees. “Very elegant, indeed… All is hubris, arrogance and pride amongst poor humankind… and thus it has always been. Where is religion without its pomp and ceremony, without its velveteen robes and golden finery?”

“Finery which gives the arrogance and pride of certainty – which is a crime against intellect in itself, for certainty, of all things, is the enemy of knowledge… while, at the same time, being no more than the mother’s teat to the child we each and every one of us carries in the depths of our minds.”

“A comfort and a sop in the face of the unknown… Yes, Marqueuesay! And another short definition: ‘Mountains of supposition up which the power-hungry scale’…”

“Succinct yet true! Are not hierarchies of power and the pretence of knowledge at the heart of all religion? Then I have yet another. ‘A justification for actions for which there is no justification’…”

My master slaps his knees. The admiration is mutual: two great and insightful minds striking one against the other and casting sparks of genius this way and that like firecrackers at a Nikolskian wedding. He says, “Try this: ‘A way for the ignorant to cover the abyss of their ignorance’…”

Skotzolheimer: “Wonderful! Wonderful! And, ‘Nonsense by which fools make sense of their lives’…”

“Very often, yes. And ‘Fairy tales from a race in its infancy which should long since have been abandoned’.”

“Long since! Long since! And even, ‘Fairy tales from our childhood, which we should long have outgrown’…”

My master, diplomatic as ever, at last puts up his hands. “I surrender! I surrender absolutely! Your words exceed anything I can offer in the  way of wisdom and insight.”

“I wish that were true,” Skotzolheimer says. “And, of course, most poignantly of all, all these things will be said of all religions, past, present and future, except our own…”

My master smiles a little smugly. “Other than of mine, of course, for I have none.” – as if his earlier words were not enough to convince any listener of this. “I have no creed whatsoever and have never so indulged. I travel widely as you know, often on foot, and I would not wish to be saddled with such a burden, constricting and constraining the world before I have even witnessed it with my own eyes, telling me what I must think and how I must behave in regard to all forthcoming places and events, a set of chains and shackles sent into the pregnant future by the thwarted and belligerent past. What a weight! What a curse! What an onslaught of nonsense inherited from a burdensome history we would do better to forget! No. No such mental and moral servitude for me…”

“If not in gods, or some other form of religion, then in what do you believe?” asks the sage of Lutz, shaping his fingers as a steeple, for he was certain he knew the answer.

My master – you know him well: the green-clad wanderer, explorer of continents, lover of all living things – laughs his handsome, generous laugh which informs me that all is well. “I believe very little,” he says. “If a thing cannot be shown to be true without preposterous assumptions or threats of doom I am reluctant to make space for it within my already over-cluttered mind…”

“Then I shall believe as you believe,” says the sage of Lutz, and he too slaps his knees and laughs. “Just as you, I shall believe in nothing and in everything, in the world of wonder before our eyes and not the fanciful constructs of our infantile minds.”

“I am glad,” says Hanrahan Yohan Sebastian Brùge. “If I have done only this small good thing, I am glad.”


The Taking Of Kusk – from The Book of Nine

April 6, 2015

The Book of Nine

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?”

“You, sir!”

“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?”

“Could be.”

“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?

Nothing…

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.

Love?

He knows he has that.

Courage?

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.

Three seconds…

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.

“Porl?”

“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.

“King Rolfe?”

“Queen Porl?”

“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.

“Shoolie?”

She grunts. Time to make up her mind. “Swarf – you ready?”

“Last century.”

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?

They’ll care.

They’ll jump.

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.

Come closer.

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.

Little fool.

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.

“Krontie! Kront!

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.


Be happy: buy the t shirt

November 30, 2014

Can a single purchase make you happier?

YES!

Buy the t shirt:

Join my cult - purple

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Mayhem and bloodshed from The Book of Nine

May 25, 2014

1-ii The Taking Of Kusk

 

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?”

“You, sir!”

“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?”

“Could be.”

“Check the mox, then take a walk around the stones.”

“Yes, sir.”

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.

Chain mail!

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.

Love?

He knew he had that.

Courage?

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.

Fuck this.

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.

“Porl?”

“Rolfe?”

“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.”

  1. 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.

“King Rolfe?”

“Queen Porl?”

“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?”

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.

“Fuck, yes!”

“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?

They’ll care.

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.

Come closer.

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.

Little fool.

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.

“Kront! Kront!

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.


Brooding, Purposeful, Provocative, Important

February 7, 2014

My title says everything you need to know about Erin Gaddi’s powerful film How To Be Happy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHst40bbO00

For more info visit: www.captivatingcult.com

For irrepressible laughter try: http://www.captivatingcult.co.uk/laugh.html

 


DGB Short Film Competition 2014: Winner

February 7, 2014

A wonderful film by Erin Gaddi…



darkgreenbooks

Erin Gaddi wins the 2014 Dark Green Books Short Film Competition!

 

Announcing the winner of the 2013 Dark Green Books Short Film and Video competition: the powerful film How To Be Happy, filmed and directed by American film maker Erin Gaddi.

How To Be Happy is a slow burning, evocative and thought provoking work which powerfully elaborates the book by the same title by the author Luke Andreski.

The film can be watched on YouTube via the link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHst40bbO00. Please take a look, ‘like’ and comment!

The competition is on hold for 2014 but will be back with new works by new authors in 2015.

http://www.darkgreenbooks.com

 

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