~ Stephen O’Donnell
We were six hours rowin for shore and the current against us the whole time. Near shot from the effort. The bastard wind. And the houses along the shore shootin up smoke, burnin wild. Looked like the shores of hell. And the tanker already aground behind us, threatenin to bust her bows with every wave until finally she went with a less’n a groan in the final swell. We rowed on. The freezin spray and the skin of us windbitten, slaked raw by the brine and that fuckin knifewind. Laong wept when he set foot in that black sand. I near wept mysel. I had already given up, she said. Out there.
The station man nodded, said nothing.
So you’ll see now that I hafta. She drained the cold dregs in her mug. She was sat naked and shivering before the muted glowing of the grate.
And is that where yous’re going?
The station man stopped wringing the rag and shook his head. There’s no turnin yous?
No, she said. There’s an fuckin awful smell of it in here. Have ye a bad room?
Here? He shook his head. Don’t even say that for a joke.
There’s no fucking bad rooms in this place. The whole townlands has been gone over. Twice.
It’s the smell of them, she said. In me mind. With the steam still rising from her she started to put back on the layers of her wet suit, checking the seals and diodes.
Don’t use any main roads, the station man said.
Isn’t it me own country?
No. Do you not see what they’ve done to the town?
I seen the fires.
Didn’t that open your eyes?
If you don’t fuckin know yet, I can’t tell you. He slapped the rag into the filthy basin and turned and looked at her under the grimy kitchen light. You’re a stranger to these, people. They are strangers to themselves. Heed me now. Keep to them backroads. The bog and the heather. Slice the hand of any that reach for you. It’ll be upon you quicker than you think. Do you mind me?
I mind you, she said.
Would that you did. And fear them that approach you most of all. Open your eyes or have them rent open.
What is this? Who will go agin me out there?
You don’t listen Aoiph. Everyone. Everyone. Just go if you’re goin. That rain wont lift.
They left before dawn with the light and unending rain all before them. She waited for Laong under the twisted remains of the viaduct. The country to the north sank and reappeared above the rain. She heard him squelching up the filthy alleyway to where she stood muddied to the hip, leaning against the stone archway.
Nary a fucking horses? Ye go the livery?
I went t’livery, yeah.
And he didn’t have ary the one nag for sale? Aoipher spat into the mud. A delicate white line amid the black sludge. I’da took one between us.
Livery feller warn’t there. They’d kilt’n eaten alla horses.
Mother of fuck.
Place’s fulla bones. They had a fuckin donkey’s arse hanging there, swinging in the breeze, and they was just carving strips off it when I walked in.
Have yer sling about ye?
Aoipher spat again. Lets hoof it then, she said. Don’t trust ary the one of these bastards.
They set out into the dark of the day. A world of mud and sucking filth and the sparse trees and the grey sky the only break from the filth.
They climbed up out of the coastal flats and across the spongey treading of the bog road.
So many crows. Ever tree filled with the mockin bastards.
T’were never so bad before.
At a turnroad they saw the carcasses of a half dozen swans. The eyes eaten away. The innards burst, stomped to leather. Laong climbed the embankment and studied the dead birds. Aoiph, he said. The bastards’ve pressed this far.
Aoipher chewed a root and watched the smoke from a hut across the bog. No surprise. They’ll be in every hole that’s hidin a warm body from here on up.
Laong jumped back down into the wet mud. We make the croppings before dark?
This mud going? Chh. She spat the root into the dirt and then flattened it with her boot.
Well it aint no stroll Aoiphe. Ye wanna head back?
Quit usin my fuckin name out loud. Be bad if one of them get’s aholt it.
Well, like I ast, what ye wanna do?
Aoipher trod on. There’s the lesser ones, before the river. Won’t be comfor’ble. Better’n going back, waitin for word to catch us up. After the word comes the doin.
They moved on, Aoipher pushing her steps and the other meeting them without either speaking a word.
The road wound down into a dell and there were the beginnings of hedges and fallow fields. At a crest closest the village they paused, watching the small thatched cottages lit like pumpkins, the light faint and pulsing in the windowsquares. The day was failing.
Round, through the woods. Poachin man might hesitate to raise us.
Think we’d be stopped?
Fuckin sure, she said. Murdur ye fer the steel alone.
And them others, they might be about already?
Don’t doubt that, Aoipher said. Not fer a second.
I’ll chance the timber with ye.
They moved from the mud of the road and crept slowly among the stands of ash. Pausing in the mist like skittish deer. They kept the village to their bladesides as they moved in the falling darkness, under deadfall and over streambed, filthy and wet through by the time they gained again the common mire of the road. A hare ran screaming across the trail as they stepped into the mud. As it disappeared into the bracken a meteor broke the night air in a silent white shear.
No, Laong said. No.
Shurrup. Aoipher said. No time t’go slack. Get on. I know them lessers start soonabouts.
And they hurried up the road, away from the village.
Laong saw it first and gave a low shripes’ whistle.
Twill hardly fit the hams of us, he said. But tis somethin glad all the same.
Aoipher pushed him in the shoulder. Get on, yer workbits.
When Laong had laid the patterns and uttered as he was bid, he climbed into the small concrete envelopment and stood chin to chin with Aoipher.
This is the night, Aoipher said.
A night it is, Laong said and he set out his elbows so that he might sleep standing.
Hares and shooting stars. Omens of the age.
In the morning she woke to Laong watching her and watching the marshlands.
Ye can look till yer eyes are burnt, Aoiphe said.
No sign of ‘em trackin us.
They’re not given to leavin sign.
Sun’s up I reckon, Laong said. They couldn’t get at us.
There’ll be dead down the village then.
We chance the road?
Aye, Aoipher said and she shunted him toward the entrance and then she followed him, gathering their webbing as she went.
They moved along a narrow causeway. Sparse timber grew along the edge of the bog, drowned in ivy.
Alla birds is crow or rook. Not much of ary other in the trees. Reckon aught of the aviary made it ashore?
No, Aoipher said. I don’t.
D’ya reckon any t’others made land?
Aoipher hiked on until she had to stop to catch her breath. Them, she said as she panted. Them I hopes drowned.
Magpies cackled somewhere down the ships corridors of her dreaming.
Do yeh think it has gotten hold of us yet?
Aoiphe shrugged. It don’t come on fast. Until it does.
We’re fuckin trapped, Laong said.
Details, she said. Details.
Trapped and headin inta madness. What were the t’other choice? Sit with t’station man? Hope not to get rumbled, hopin someone hears the broadcast? That’s only n’other type of fuckin madness.
It were them we heard, last night. Werent it?
Aye, Aoipher said. I thinkwise I did. Now take aholt of yerself. We’ve another week at this if that last reckonin aboard was right.
Whar if it wasn’t? Whar if it were out?
I said take a fuckin hold of yer tongue. Hear me?
I’m hearin yeh.
We’ll see how we fare. Day at a time. Recite t’me the landmarks. As they stood.
The shore. The beacon. The picking point. The decycle.
An then all the normal fuckin madness, Aoipher said.
Laong waved a hand at her. Don’t talk namore bout madness.
Fine, Aoiphe said. Just ye recite that to yoursel the next time ye feel like gettin goin.
The night found them inside an uncropped tier, large enough to sleep twenty men. They had to slice through a tight thicket of ivy to crawl inside.
A fire I reckon.
Aye, Aoipher said. Go on about yer ablutions. I’ll fetch kindling.
Whar about the light?
It’s nor a risk yet. Get about yer workins.
Laong dropped to his knees and twisted the nozzle below his collar. Aoipher climbed back into the crawl way, cursing against the grating of her suit in the darkness there.
Laong was almost finished and was turning water when he heard a sound in the crawlspace behind him.
A child led an immense man in a tin helmet into the room. They both paused when they saw Laong watching them.
Where’n, Laong said. Where’d ye come from?
The child, caked in mud, grinned. There is a crowd of them, the child said.
A crowd. Yon next rise. And they are comin for ye both.
Laong looked at the man. Closed eyes and a closed mouth had been painted upon his helmet. Y’take off that bucket to see?
They know you are here, the child said. They know why you have come. Listen. They are taking your Aoiphe now.
Who told y’such things child? Laong said. Yer lummox does not bare a tongue?
Your iron boat. Landings are forbade. Any from the sea are to be drowned. Any from the sky to be burned.
This, this child speaks for you brute?
The painted eyes opened on the helmet and blinked once. A stream of breath snorted from the mouth.
Listen, the child said, pointing into the darkness behind Laong. Listen and you will hear.
Laong turned and screamed at what he saw.
Aoipher heard Laong’s scream. She cast the sods from her bad hand while the other cleared the rags from about the hilt of her steel as she moved quickly, staggering down from the bank into the road, stumbling, cursing the mud. She started fast up the trail.
In the fray he lost sight of Aoipher. They dragged him off, chanting the whole while.
He did not know where he was, only that it was dark and there was a whutting sound like falling gobs of burning candle grease. He remembered. He remembered and knew from remembering. It was human fat they burnt. He remembered. Fear their darkened rooms most of all. He tried to move but his body shot with a cold pain that held him rooted. He could hear something stirring in the darkness beside him, where he could not see. He struggled to cry out but his jaw only trembled and refused to move. Only his eyes moved. He could see now what it was beside him and a strangled groan came from his rooted throat. He felt it seize him and he shrank from the teeth and the stench. His flesh burnt and finally his jaw sprang loose and he howled.
Getta fuckway from me. No, he hissed and he tried to move his arms but they were as stone. No no no no no. Tears streamed from his eyes and pooled ice cold in the back of his mask.
Laong ye stupid cunt, the dark thing said.
What, whatta fuck’re yeh?
Laong you silly fucking cunt. It’s me you fuck. The ablutions. Did ye finish the ablutions? Laong, it’s important. The daemon lifted him and shook him hard. He shrank inside his mask at the face there, the face of Aoipher with a thousand teeth and the eyes that were not her own, eyes that burnt black fire.
No, Laong screamed and then he rose upwards into blackness.
He woke lying on his side on the tier cement. Aoipher with her back to him, squatted on her haunches before a dying fire. All was pitchdark beyond the flames.
He sat upright painfully and shuffled closer to the fire.
Is it you Aoiphe?
Last time I lookt.
I dreamt, dreamt they took ye. Yeh tolt me they took ye.
Aoipher turned to look at him now. Speak it.
I dreamt we was kept in the dark together. And yeh told me they took ye.
The dream, what’d I say?
I can’t remember.
How? How are you here? I seent them tear ye away, I had ye fixed for their fire. I saw yer face by the black light.
Tell it, Aoipher said.
You lookt kilt. Yer face bloodied and the remains of yer great cloak in a rag about yer neck.
Kilt, I said, you look kilt.
Those cunts, yeh said and then yeh spat onna floor. I aint near kilt. Not by that buncha, they had their hands about me and but I stuck two of em. Hard, inna chest.
And as you said it I heard the knife. The wound gurgling. The air loosed from some inner cavity.
Yeh grinned and said, Anat took some of the steam of t’others but they kept after me but at a distance now though I yet struck any I could reach, alla time backing down for the riverwaters I could hear someplace behind me in the darkness, slashing and stabbing and spitting at ‘em and I only knew that if I made that fuckin water I’d be alright even though they’d stuck me, maybe twice.
I ast yeh, I said, did they bleed ye?
Aye, yeh said and yeh spat again, into the blackfire this time. Stung me a time or two in the dance of it. Such are the goings of a crater such as I, s’what yeh said and yeh laughed anat was a terrible laugh like it were inside my skull. Ye said: I will be dead before I’m taken blind by a posse of such calibre and you turned your face all wounded for me to see and I saw and and and and that’s whar I remember, Laong said.
Wake up, Aoipher said and she threw a pebble at him.
I am, I am, I think.
Y’are now. Whatta the faces of the crowd? Aoipher said.
Nothing, faces. Faces with nothing left. They had great long haunched dogs all among them.
Aye, Laong said.
Had they markings?
Laong shook his head. Not that I’d see.
Dogs, Aoiphe said. Wild dogs. She shook her head. I aint a diviner. But that don’t lie easy on me fuckin mind.
Throw on some more peat, Laong said. Please, I dreamt they was all amidst these woods.
They likely are.
Build it up Aoiphe. Please. I don’t want one of them, them dogs to get any closer.
I aint heard naught, Aoiphe said. She picked up several small logs all the same and placed them on the bed of coals. The darkness receded. Fuck em. Let em come up again, purrit out with their own feet.
How do I know this is real?
Aoiphe shrugged. It’s real. You been drivelling quite a time.
Laong snatched out a hand for the other’s blade, touching the hilt.
Loosen it or swally the bitin end, Aoipher said. Be worse’n ary fuckin dream ye had.
Laong let his fingers fall and sat back. Aoipher dropped some peat to the flames now, pressed the twigs down and watched sparks crack and rise. Then she turned and looked at Laong.
It were more’n sleep then, Aoiphe said.
They stopp yer ears?
Laong shifted on the ground slightly, slowly. He sneered with the effort.
Feels so, Laong said. Is this its beginning?
Aoipher shook her head, and turned from the fire to the darkness. I don’t know. Talkin bout it inna middle of the night won’t do no good.
Are ye scairt?
You’d be too, y’had any fuckin sense.
When you had it. That first time, what were it like?
Aoiphe watched the fire a long time. No, she said. I won talk about it. Not after dark.
At the first grey light that did not seem to grow any brighter Aoipher was shuffling about, a strange fire in her blood.
Laong watched her from his bedroll. Should we plan t’way some more?
No, she said, blinking as she grubbed sleep from her eye. We just get foot under road. Kick out that fire, gather what pieces’re left ye.
Goin agin? Shouldn’t I rest some?
No. I aint havin m’throat cut be no halfwit baker boy. Today, I’m goin and goin. We’re too slow. The muck out there. Aoipher said and then she stood over the fire and spat phlegm into the ashes.
They moved over a series of low cliffsides, thick with briarforest and the waves constant against the cliffside in a sound that shook in their lungs.
Are ye moulting? Yer rancid.
Laong didn’t answer. He stared at the black mud as they walked. The mud pulsed slightly, slowly, as if the earth were possessed of some latent bloodpulse. He could feel it in his suitsoles when the soil rose and sank. He looked up at the treeline and shook his head and then he looked at the mud again. The mud began to coil and sluice in strange cords, separating and rejoining.
Aoiphe looked at where he was pointing. Hah?
The mud. It’s the fuckin mud.
Mud an’ shit’s all I’ve seen since we come aground. I hate this fuckin trail and ever cunt upon it.
Later black rot worms rose from the churning mud. Laong stepped upon them viciously and their blood ran black as any man’s.
Worms, he said. Them’re fucking bloodworms.
Fucking worms and serpents, he said. For they were now a cold writhing mass of snakeheads, curling in a silent mulch about his boot, covering the ground before him. He drew his dagger and held it unsteadily. A dark flame burned along the blade’s edge. He waved it before him. It left faint trails in the air.
Wha? Are yeh fuckin senseless?
Black fire, Laong said. D’ya see it? How the steel burns. See? He swung the dagger in small vicious circles.
The balms, Aoiphe said. Quickly. Have ye the last of ye balms? Where’ve yeh them hid, she said as she clutched hold of Laong. Where?
Aoiphe pulled at Laong’s capsule pockets. Idjit, we’re done for.
I have buried them in darkness.
Aoiphe slapped him. Fuckin listen to me. Speak fuckin sense. Nightfall, the bastards in the woods. Remember, she said and she slapped him again. The landmarks. Remember t’fuck.
I, what, Aoiphe what’ve yeh aholt of me fir?
The parcels, the blutions.
Yea, they’re, they’ someplace, here. Here. Me heartpocket.
Fill em. Fill em.
Oh, Laong said. We need water for that. Mineral mechanisms’re part spent.
Wha? Spent? Why’n fuck didn’t ye say this morn? Fuck. She studied the treeline before them. I seent common road again, a while back. There were some thatch.
Kin we risk it?
We’ve no fuckin choice, Aoipher said. Won’t never make it with spent balms.
You said not tay panic.
Come on ta fuck, who sez I am? Step quickly, we kin repluck our way, unfuck oursels, find their well, or a stream maybe.
They came up through a cut in the backwoods and could see the thatch roof huge among the maples.
The trough, Aoipher said. Mark it? Near covered over, see the smooth stone of it?
Kin we risk it?
No choice now. Get tay it.
Laong hurried from the brush and stooped to rewater with the nozzle in his hand. Aoipher kept watch of the inn door. Two mules were tied to a sunked post. Voices from an upper room, drunken giggling. When Aoipher looked back Laong was drinking ravenously from cupped hands, leering at his own grimy face as he swallowed in huge, sucking gulps.
Wharra fuck are ye doing, Aoipher hissed. Fill yer balmcups.
Whattad ye know bout it? Laong filled his dipper cups and struggled with them back into the shelter of the timber.
Willit take long?
Laong shook his head. Leave me mix what needs mixin.
Aoipher stood on a rock and watched the door of an inn.
She saw the door open and a man emerge at a run, grabbing at the hitches of his trousers as he waddled toward them.
Gucka fuggin pishh, the man gasped. Fugg.
Aoipher crouched down.
What is it?
Be still, she said. Say naught, locals.
The man came into the copse, pissing as he walked, laughing at the steam havoc he created upon the dead leaves, his eyes like nacre. His stream dried to a trickle that stained his filthy pants as he saw them crouched like upended hatchlings.
The man grinned down at them. Maken pudden?
Aoipher stood, wiping her hand along herself and nodding at the man.
Together, srrange. Dressed for paegent? Assa good getup. Assa gud wan. Shrink?
Laong looked at Aoipher. Whars he say?
Aoipher raised a hand behind her back. Shrink’d be kindly, she said and she made a shape in the air with her other hand.
The man looked down at Laong and rubbed his head. That ya goslin?
The man shrugged again and pushed his penis back into his pants. Mon that shrink so, he said and turned back for the inn.
Wharre yah doin?
Say naught, Aoipher said and she walked after the man toward the inn. Foller me lead.
Just fuckin drop im.
Say fucking naught. He’d have a posse on us, we refuse. C’mon.
They stepped through the doorway and into the greasy light of the inn.
Ese’re bound a’paegent. Coming a con a shrink from me, the man said and he laughed.
Two forms in rags at a huge hearth nodded and then turned away the newcomers. The man led them to a bench and waved them to sit. He pushed two crudely hollowed pieces of wood toward them. From the floor he lifted a flagon and unstoppered it and filled their wooden mugs.
Shrink, shrink, shrink, the man said. He watched them regard the liquid. Then Aoipher took the cup and drank quickly. She looked at Laong.
Gettit over weh, Aoipher said.
Laong took it and sipped quickly and then he sat back in the chair shaking.
What is it you mudsliders are come about?
Come about? Hear this cur bark?
It’s nay from the like of ye I’ll low such talk.
Step to with steel so, Aoipher shouted and she had her own drawn and red in the firelight.
Laong pressed his arm across Aoipher’s shoulder. Not in here. Y’see him but ye don’t see the others behind’m, watchin ye. He pulled Aoiphe backwards to the bench. Sit. Take s’more. Puttat fuckin steel ‘way. He lifted a mug to the other table. Sit or they’ll stamp the wind from yeh.
They came staggering from the hedge in the slow grey light of dawn.
Aoipher pushed the other. Y’stink, she said. Ye need dunking.
Get on pissbody.
Foul, Aoipher said. Even for a roadgoer. Get a dunk or lop off me nose.
I’ll lop it easy, the other said and he tripped and fell flat in the mud.
We should nort have drunk ‘at water.
Nor stayed inna keepers bed.
I slept in nay bed.
Pah. A skeet of spittle shot from between Laong’s bucked teeth. I’d do that twice agin for half of naught. Dirty aul cunt, all I wanted was something to rub up against.
Y’blistered bastard. Have ye, well have ye yer edged edge about ye at least?
Awluss. Awluss. Man says theys a fair up these roads someplace.
Wha man? Station man?
Whar? Naw, Laong said. Naw. Inn feller. So he says as I were lacing mysel up. Him lying pink and raw. Only talk truth whenat they’s leeched raw.
Aoipher stopped suddenly and turned to look at the empty road behind them. She heard a voice call her name over her shoulder, birdsong in a twisting tunnel, roaring silent through the black void far from any soil and the voice calling remember remember remember from the twisting darkness.
See sommat? Deer?
I thought, she said. A name? Maybe? Naw, she said and she hiccupped and fell laughing to her knees. I’m hearing voices. She began to laugh and then she began to weep. I’m hearing fucking voices.
Laong pulled her by the arm. It’s the grog. Brainrot. Gerrup. Mon. S’more’ll see ye right, he said and then he staggered away from the road and into the briars to piss.
Laong, staggering back to the mud, wiping mud upon himself. Feller said watch out for ‘em ditchsnakes.
Taverner fella. He’ll be a few coin short.
Aoipher took up step beside Laong. Ye loosened his load?
Never in a dell. He shook his finger solemnly. He’ll only be walking gammy a time. Won’t be no poorer.
He might be met yet.
He might. The roads are wild things, filled with madmen, Loang said and he began to cough. Who’s to say the misfortunes as a man might meet?
They stumbled on, down toward the carnivalgrounds. Through the trees they could see the bonfire, huge and roaring, now vesper green, now a crackling blue. Aoipher tottered at the edge of the treeline and stood watching. She saw the ones who were gathered, saw their faces were as the faces of lizards and their feet were shod as the feet of bulls and all around the flames they murmured together in low whispers like the whispered workings of maggots and now they had all turned to watch her and she knew it was her name they were whispering.
Wasn’t there somethin we was, Aoipher hissed, clutching wildly at Laong. A boat?
About? A bout whar? Boot fer a foot? Or a shoe fer a pony? Laong giggled. Wasn’t naught we had to do but get on to yon fairground. Theys all waiting on us.