Can’t a writer get paid? Give Trev Hill some beer money!
A Final Supper
The smell hits me as I approach the campsite. It is the stench of death. It is nothing new to me, nor is it anything I fear, although it does put me on my guard.
The wagons are burning and overturned, the tents are torn to shreds and their inhabitants, or what is left of them, are scattered around the site. When I say scattered, I don’t just mean individual people, I mean parts of people as well. It is all too familiar… and all too quiet.
They have been here, that’s obvious. But are they still here? That is the question I ask myself. Quite a pointless question as it is obvious they still are. They wouldn’t leave all this fresh meat just for one ranger, even me. No, the question is, where are they?
The blur of movement to my right gives me my answer. I spin to my left, swinging my sword in a wide arc as a large male one charges me. My movement has confused him and he finds himself running into the space I once stood, as my blade cleaves into his spine, snapping through it and cutting him almost in half. Not breaking the motion, the sword completes its arc and I pull back and lunge forward, skewering the hell-bitch who is running towards me shrieking in fury because her decoy tactic didn’t work. The shock on her face as my sword’s point enters her belly is almost comical. However, the force of her dash makes her run almost the length of the blade. Even dying, her bite could prove hazardous, so my chain-mailed forearm smashes into her face, stopping her suddenly and allowing me to wrench my sword from her rancid guts. She writhes around in circles on the ground until I get a decent aim and lop her head off. Best take no chances.
That was a wise move. Dropping to one knee I avoid the axe of the third one as it circles where my head was a second before. Rising quickly, I jam his arm with my body, preventing his reverse swing, and drive the sword upwards, under his ribs and into his upper-body. I slam his face to the side to direct his bloody vomit away from my face. I pull the sword out and let his putrid corpse drop.
I spin around at the ready, ready for the next one wherever it may be. But nothing. No sound, except the first one twitching and drowning on his own blood. No movement. The third one must have been the last of them. I relax slightly and proceed to detach the heads from the two males before dumping them into the fire. Then, sheathing my sword, after wiping their foul fluids from it, I drag their carcasses over to the fire and toss them on to burn.
Now it happens.
As I drag the third corpse to the fire, I have to bend down to pick it up so that I can put it on top of the other two. As I begin to lift, I see the flash of movement from the corner of my right eye. I manage to turn and hold the headless carcass between us as the female slams into me. Dropping the body, I stagger and trip backwards into the fire. Immediately I begin rolling, trying to extinguish the flames but the bitch-fiend is at my throat, trying to extinguish me.
Her fangs snap at my throat as her filthy claws swipe at my face, drawing blood. Jamming my forearm across her throat, I continue to roll, taking her with me. My weight on her squeezes some of her stinking breath out (unfortunately, into my face… damn, I almost puke!). I pull her over until I am below her. Thinking I am at a disadvantage, she moves in for a throat bite only to meet my mailed fist, and again as I reach behind her head and pull it onto the metal knuckles. Forcing my knee up, I kick upwards and send her flying backwards. Now we are both standing, both ready. She snarls and edges towards me, flexing her taloned fingers. She draws back her lips to expose her filthy, saliva coated fangs and hisses. Then her head explodes.
This surprises me. But I don’t have time to be surprised.
As her knees fold and her body flops to the ground, I see the boy standing behind her, the slingshot in his hand. He is stands still staring at her corpse then slowly raises his face to look into mine.
“She’s the last one,” he says, his voice quivering.
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“Yes, there were four…I saw them…” his voice begins to speed up as the emotion comes flooding out, “… I saw it all, I saw them attack. The men tried to fight them off but they were too quick, too strong. I hid, I couldn’t help… I…”
His voice trails off.
“You did right. You’d have been taken had you tried,” I say brusquely. Perhaps I should try to comfort him but I no longer have those skills, those feelings. “And maybe, if not for you, I would have been that hell-bitch’s dinner. So I thank you!”
He still stands. Lost, uncertain. I break the silence.
“We should go. We can’t help the dead and the fire may draw more. If you have things, get them.”
We ride along mainly in silence. Little by little he either volunteers pieces of information or answers my direct questions. His name is Ethan. He is an orphan (well, if he wasn’t already, he is now!)and joined the wagon-train somewhere in the west, he forgets the name of the town. The vampires attacked the camp not long after sunset, while the people were still eating. They were fast, picking off the guards and then the so-called “safe wagon” where the women and children sheltered. They had just shredded all before my coming was noted and they laid an ambush for me. Ethan had watched them feed and knew my approach might be his only chance to escape alive.
The boy is lucky to have survived. In some cases, the lucky ones are the dead. The fiends are known to have taken children and…initiated them. In other cases they keep them around for sadistic amusement, or to simply feed on them, alive, when they get bored. These aren’t the old-style blood suckers of children’s stories, these feed on human flesh, the innards especially. A man, even a child, can live for some time as his organs are plucked one by one.
Yes, Ethan has been lucky, as have I. If he wishes to ride with me, his experiences will make him a useful apprentice, not least because children have an ability to smell out the creatures.
Arriving at the next settlement, I leave the horses with the boy and go to the local guard commander to report the massacre and pick up any new assignments. The reaction is a mixture of tired despair and resignation. Perhaps someday we’ll all end up this way, they mumble.
Perhaps, but not today. I leave the guard room. I’ve done my work, the matter of the retrieval and burial is theirs, if they even bother to do it. I return to the horses and find Ethan sitting watching a cat tormenting a mouse before eating it.
“It does that to make the meat taste better,” I explain, “It looks like it’s playing for fun, but it makes the humours in the body spread and softens the flesh.” The boy speaks without taking his eyes from the scene,
“But do you think the cat enjoys the game as well?” he asks. The cat, if it had been enjoying the game, must have become bored, as it finishes it abruptly by biting the mouse’s head off and devouring the rest.
“Who knows?” I reply, “but at least when the game is over, the end is swift. I’ve seen times when it wasn’t. That’s what marks men out from the animals, from the hell-spawn. We don’t play before the end.”
The boy favours me with a long gaze before standing and picking up his bag. We stable the horses, I need to eat and sleep for a few hours before we go to the market area of the settlement to buy supplies before continuing.
The market stinks, they all do. Cheap meat burning on spits, unwashed souls trying to beg scraps while the sweating stall holders try to sell their shoddy wares for an outrageous price. Having done what we need to do we once more saddle up and move towards the settlement gates. On the edge of the market we see a makeshift gallows with several furry bodies hanging from them and a number of blood-spattered men carving up carcasses below. Ethan gazes at the swinging bodies, one or two of which are still twitching and kicking.
“Were they men-wolves?” he asks quietly. I shake my head,
“No, just ordinary dogs, wolf people would have been beheaded, staked and burned, like vampires.”
“But why hang a dog? What has it done?” he queries. I snort in amusement,
“Have you never seen dog meat before, boy? It’s the poorer people eat it but it is still common,”
Ethan favours me again with one of his long looks,
“I know people eat dogs, but why hang them? You don’t hang pigs or cows.” This comment makes me laugh out loud,
“Have you ever tried to pull something the weight of a pig or a cow, boy? Perhaps that’s why they don’t hang ‘em. But as for dogs, I suppose it is like the cat and the mouse, a-hanging it makes the meat better, or so they say,”
The boy looks forward and rides for a while in silence. When he speaks, it was a strange kind of distant voice, strange for one so young.
“I had a dog once, it was my friend. I wouldn’t have eaten it, but then I would eat pigs. I suppose some people might make a friend of a pig. Strange how people eat animals, even ones which would be their friends, and yet when the vampires eat people, they are evil.” He pauses, looking me in the face. “Could you be a friend to a vampire?” he asked. I snort once again.
“Never! They don’t want to be friends anyway. Man was put on earth to rule it and we kill them to defend ourselves. Now if you have no sensible questions, hold your tongue, boy!” We ride on in silence.
The sun will soon be setting and we need to make camp but the area is too open. There are no defensive areas. We’ll be easy to see and prone to attack during the night. This is an area I don’t know well but I have been told they are here and are known to attack travelers. We must be wary. Ethan has learned well and suggests several places which might be better than others. Eventually he suggests riding to the brow of a hill and taking stock of the landscape to see if there is anywhere suitable… of course, I would have done this myself but it is good to know his mind is working like that of a ranger.
The land below the hillcrest reveals a small outcrop a few miles below. There seem to be a few wisps of smoke coming from behind it. This creates a problem. It might be that there are waggoners there, or perhaps a camp or settlement. While that might suggest safety, it also makes a potential target. Still, perhaps it is better to check it out, if the company is good, then we can sleep safely. If not, then they’ll need our help.
The truth becomes obvious as we skirt around the base of the outcrop. To my surprise, there is a stone building, a little like a small monastery, although it looks long deserted. In front of this building, a small train of three has been hit and the smoke is from the burning remains of one of the wagons. Scattered around are the familiar shapes of their victims. This time it looks like nobody escaped. This presents us with a serious problem, do we make camp here in the hope that they will not return or do we move on in the hope of finding somewhere? Also, what do we do with the corpses? Burning them might attract attention to ourselves yet leaving them might allow some to rise, if they were attacked by a specific sort. A quick look tells me that this won’t be a problem. The attackers have fed and apparently dragged some bodies away, presumably for the rest of the nest, wherever that may be. They will probably stay away tonight. A few beheadings will ensure none of the victims rise.
We decide to look through one of the remaining wagons to see if there is anything of use before searching the monastery to see if it is possible to defend it if needs be. It is in the second wagon that we make our discovery. As I am about to climb in, I spot a movement from a bundle of cloth by a sleeping mat. I motion to Ethan to stay back and I draw my short sword.
“It would be better if you come out slowly. You might not like me dragging you out!” I call. The mound stays still. “You have one more chance. If you are human, you have nothing to fear from us!” The mound shuffles slightly and from within its folds appears a small, tousled haired head, with two staring blue eyes.
“Is Mama with you?” it asks.
The little girl climbs down the ladder looking straight ahead, as I told her too. I don’t want her seeing what is left of her family. As she walks towards the building Ethan emerges. The two children stop and stiffen slightly as they see each other, then cautiously relax. Ethan introduces himself and the girl announces her name as Caitlin.
We sit around the fire in the building eating a meal. I have erected some makeshift defences and traps to let us know if we have unwanted visitors. Caitlin is happily chatting away, apparently oblivious to what has happened outside. Ethan told her Mama and Papa have gone to town and asked us to look after her and to my astonishment, it has worked. As soon as sun rises, we will turn around and take her back to the town. The boy is at least old enough to be of use in my work but I cannot take care of an eight year old little girl.
She tells us that her family travelled out from town two days ago and were heading out to the new lands to try and make their fortune. I smile at her innocence, although there is nothing pleasant about either her present situation or those which make poor families risk all in the hope of some ill-conceived dreams. I ask her how long they had been camped here. She thinks a little and replies,
“Oh just a few hours, I think. We were just going to make dinner and then mama told me to go into the wagon and hide under the blankets and stay there until she came for me.” She smiles and begins to draw in the sand.
“Oh, and why do you think she did that?” I ask. She shrugs and giggles,
“I don’t know! Sometimes we played hide and seek. I liked it very much,” she replies. I nod and suddenly remember that we need some water for the horses. Without a sound, Caitlin smiles and walks over to the corner of the room and points to a pump hidden by some old wooden planks. “You can get some from the well, here,” she declares. I tell Ethan to fill one of the old buckets and to water the horses. I sit across the fire, smiling at the girl.
“So how long have you lived here, Caitlin?” I ask. She goes still and quiet for a moment. “I mean, you know your way around this building very well, especially for someone who has only been here a few hours.” She stares at me a second before looking at the ground,
“Well Mama showed me where it was!” she mumbled. I nodded.
“Of course, she did. Was that when you were washing the dishes after dinner?” I ask. She nods enthusiastically. My hand is moving inside my cloak.
“But I thought you said that you had just started to make dinner when your mama told you to hide, and you don’t seem very hungry. You haven’t touched the meal.” I see her jaw tighten and her little hands ball into fists.
“No, I forgot, we had dinner,” she snaps.
“Of course you did, Caitlin, then you set fire to the wagon to attract any passers-by. Isn’t that what you usually do? In fact, is your name really Caitlin?” I demand. I roll to my right as she pounces across the fire towards me. Standing straight up from the roll, I plant my boot in her little backside and send her flying into the wall. She slams into it and turns, snarling, her face bloodied from the impact. At last she is showing her fangs. “Not such a sweet little thing now, are we?” I taunt.
She runs towards the other wall and jumps at it, bouncing off and flying towards me. I dodge to the side and bring my sword swinging round, catching her across her back with the flat of it. She sprawls across the floor and I move in for the kill. But she is faster than I expected. Swiveling around onto her back, she catches my sword between her hands and stops my swing. Now I feel the first indication of her true strength. I wrench the sword back and aim it towards her head. Once again her speed takes me by surprise and she dodges the blow and catches my sword arm, using my own force to send me flying across the room. My back slams against the wall, winding me. I barely manage to keep hold of my weapon. Before I can react, she has charged across the room and drives her head into my stomach, making me double up. Now she is on my shoulders, snapping at me neck with her little fangs, although they are no less dangerous for their size. I snap my mail gloved across her face and force it into her mouth, trapping her head with my other hand. Spinning around I slam her little body against the stone wall, again and again, using my own body weight to sandwich her against the wall. At last I feel her body slacken and I throw her limp form to the floor before picking up my sword to finish her off. Her little head swivels around to face me. Two large, teary blue eyes stare up at me pitifully and she whimpers,
“Please don’t hurt me!”
I pause for a second, almost fooled by her innocence, but that is her weapon. I raise my sword to bring it down on her neck but as my arm reaches its full height, I hear a crunching squelch and am aware of all the feeling in my body draining away. My legs buckle and I realize my bowels are emptying. My face thuds into the floor and I lie there motionless, save for the involuntary twitching of my limbs.
Ethan walks around me, licking the blood from his hand. Caitlin is picking herself from the floor, spitting her own blood on the floor. She approaches the boy,
“You took your time!” she snarls. Ethan smiles at her before turning to look me in the face. He smiles at me whilst talking to her.
“Well, it was a good fight and for a moment you didn’t seem to need any help,” he shrugs. Apart from that, I needed him where I could get him properly, like this.”
I stare at him, trying to speak, but my muscles refuse to work. I can barely manage a grunt. Caitlin walks over and stands next to him. She picks up my fallen sword.
“Why not just kill him?” she asks. Ethan chuckles and lays his hand on her sword hand. He looks me in the eyes with a smile of increasing malevolence.
“Are you really as young as you look, Caitlin?” he chuckles. “I was initiated a few years ago by the nest who he found me with. I won’t say I liked them, in fact, I was glad to see him dispose of them. I even took the opportunity to finish the bitch who sired me. Still, what I did learn was a few gastronomic tips.” He keeps his smile fixed on me as he takes his little knife from his belt.
“Are you going to kill him now?” she asks. He shakes his head.
“No, no,” he chuckles, “as I said, I know a few little things. One of the reasons I let you slam him around was that it tenderized the meat a little. Do you remember, like the cat and the mouse?” he asks me. “But there are other ways to improve the taste of fresh meat,” he explains, slowly walking towards me. “It took me a while to learn to puncture a man’s spine this way but it is worth it. The paralysis creates all kinds of movement of the humours, for one”. He kneels down beside me and turns me over onto my back. I follow his movements with my eyes, unable to move anything else. Slowly he pierces my stomach with the point of his knife and begins sawing a cut across my body. Although I feel only the pulling sensation, I cannot help but moan. Ethan looks across at the slavering girl.
“You see? It’s starting to work already. Keep them alive and the fear increases. The humours enter each part of the body making each morsel sweeter. Sliding his hand inside my torso, he plucks something from within before extracting it and taking a bloody bite. As my life juices trickle down his chin, he hands the organ to the girl. “Try and see,” he invites her. She takes a bite and smiles a bloody smile of delight. “And the best thing is,” he grins, “if we take each morsel separately and slowly, we can keep him alive at least until his heart,” at which, as I watch helplessly, he begins sliding his hand back inside me for his next portion.