Chapter 3: Bent Back and the Body in the Barrow
The roads were dirt, worn smooth by years of cart traffic, foot traffic and horses passing over them. The timber houses, creaked against the wind, their shutters rattling like threatened snakes. Their windows were paned in thick, foggy glass and the thatched roofs did what they could to keep the elements at bay. Their doors were heavy wood on sturdy hinges inlaid with iron studs.
The gloomy, grey skies had driven many of the townsfolk to the comfort of the tavern, a sturdy old place full of warm fires and songs. The staff there ensured they would stay until the peoples' pockets were empty before stumbling back to their homes to sleep off their stupor. Smoke rose from the stone chimney, smelling of sweet meats and the roaring fire in the hearth. A few horses tied to posts outside nickered at the thunder as it came.
At the centre of the village, there was a wide square. On one side stood a tall wooden keep, with a few steps that led to a patio that wrapped around the sides. The roof was hard slate, smoothed by rain and snow. Opposite the manse, stood a chapel, little more than a gazebo. At each of intersection of the stone walls, a metal effigy of one of the gods stood watch over the town and its congregants. The center of the plaza was home to the old gallows.
Made of oak and rope, hundreds of thieves and rapists had learned the hard way that their deeds were not to be tolerated as they stood on the platform, the executioner’s coils wrapped around their necks.
One such criminal, dangled from the rope, gently swaying in the chilled breeze. Its clothes were tattered and torn, stained brown by old blood. A hand was missing, leaving behind only a stump. A bag had been placed over its head. A few crows pecked at it, but could not penetrate the burlap. A low rumble of thunder sounded the arrival of a storm, but the rain held off.
A shrouded figure appeared at the head of the main thoroughfare, pushing a small spring cart, and singing praises to the foul-mouthed gods. A thick brown cloak covered much of his body. His pale, twiggy hands, curled around the handles of the barrow. His flimsy leather shoes clapped on the dirt as he walked, cursing to himself. His face was lined with thick creases and his bushy grey brows were furrowed at the ground. He was accompanied by a crow, riding at the wagon’s prow. It squawked loudly before taking off, then circled over the square, landing on the main beam of the gallows. Again, it cawed and waddled down the thick beam, then cawed again.
“You shut your mouth!” croaked the cloaked figure. The voice was ragged, worn with time, like his cloak and the shoes about his long, knotty feet. The bird leapt from its perch and made a loop around the stage, eyeing the lonely, hanging performer and perched on its shoulder. Again, it called, this time right into the corpse’s ear.
“He can’t hear you,” the man grumbled. “Not that he’d listen. We might as well leave up there.” The man stopped beside the gallows and climbed up the stairs, hoisting his cloak. He reached the top and threw the hems back to the floor. He glared up at the body.
“You stupid bastard!” he shouted, and punched it hard in the gut, sending the crow fluttering back up to the wooden crosspiece. The body spun about, rocking from side to side at the end of the coil. “Always getting into trouble, aren’t we, little man. ‘I'll make short work of him.’” he mocked. "'He'll never see me coming.'” he broke in with a grotesque mocking laugh. “Well," He spat on the dangling corpse and drew a slender blade from within his cloak. “You weren’t supposed to get yourself killed, you twat!” He began sawing at the line just above the noose. “I should geld you.” The cord snapped and the body fell with a loud thump onto the wooden stage. “Clumsy oaf.” The old man looked around to ensure no one was watching. Thunder rumbled its discontent. “Fuck off.” the man warned, pointing his knife up at the thick, pale clouds. A cat slinked by from a nearby house but then disappeared down the street. The man placed the knife back in his cloak and turned to the body.
“You just gonna lie there or are you gonna do something useful?” he spat a thick glob of muscus over his shoulder. “Git.” He gave the corpse a sharp kick. “Hello?” he cried. He lifted the bag revealing a mash of skin and bone and muscle. “Disgusting.” he scorned. He drew the sack back over the face. “Come on, then.” He grabbed a cold hand and dragged the body down the stairs carelessly, letting the feet thump on each step as they went down, thump, thump, thump and then one last thump on the dirt as they hit the ground.
"If you're not going to help, get out of the way." he ordered the crow, who had perched on one of the handles of the wheelbarrow. He waved an arm, shooing it away, then slipped his hands beneath the cadaver's arms and hauled the head and torso into the wagon. The head hit hard against the wall of the cart. He then bent over to drag it the rest of the way.
In the midst of hoisting the corpse into the cart, a pair of young boys clamoured into the square, giggling and chasing each other with sticks. They battled and dueled into the plaza until one of them caught sight of the old man and his companion. Curiosity then got the better of the lad and he lowered his guard, giving his friend the opportunity to strike. The blow landed on his arm, but not hard enough for the boy to notice. He cocked his head to the side and took a step forward. His friend, following the boy's line of sight joined in the curiosity and stepped forward, toward the old man's bent back and the body in the barrow. They neared cautiously.
“Excuse me, sir,” began one of them innocently. Without warning, the man dropped the the corpse heavily into the wagon and wheeled around. His long, narrow face was traversed by a grim scar that coursed its way from the brow to the jaw. His lips curled into a wicked smile. He tore the sack from the cadaver’s face, revealing the mangled meat facade.
“Hello, boys!" he cried theatrically, causing them to jump. He shook the body, rocking the head around on its shoulders. He rocked the body to and fro as a ventriloquist would with his puppet. The boys screamed. "Oh, don't be like that." complained the old man. "Look, he’s perfectly harmless. He’s lost his good hand, see?" He lifted one of the corpse's arms, revealing the stump where a hand belonged. The boys took off, wailing fearfully. The man cackled hideously.
"Run back to your mum's tits, little jackrabbits!" he called after them. He turned back to the wagon and draped the burlap sack over the cadaver’s maimed lineaments. "Keep this on, damn it. You're scaring people." He lifted up the torso so the legs slid in and whole body sat in the carriage. He loosed a blanket from beneath the corpse and used it to cover it as best he could before picking up the handles again. The raw, dirty feet stuck out of the front, but the rest remained beneath the shroud.
The bird cawed from the gallows. "Are you coming or not?" the man asked. "God knows the Master would love to have you." he turned and set off down the road grumbling bitterly. "'Magnificent animals, crows are, very smart, oh yes very smart, smarter than some humans I daresay.' Smart enough to be a bird and leave all the heavy lifting to me." The bird squawked again, causing his blood to bubble. He grumbled to himself as he pushed the cart along the bumpy road, passing the horses and the houses and drifting away from the smells of the tavern.
The man pushed the cart out of the village and up the single narrow road into the woods, which seemed a tunnel, looming overhead. The dirt path cut a swath through the thick grass and dry blowing leaves that littered the floor. Above, there was oak and ash and beech and pine all mixed together, their thick brambles embracing one another into one mass of branch and leaf and root. Dense shrubs filled the gaps between the trees and the local residents ever stirred, rustling above below and to the sides of the gnarled pathway. Thunder rumbled again overhead, louder and more brazenly than before and with it came the gentle jangle of tiny raindrops on leaves. Many of the residents, little rodents and a few larger animals scurried through the trees to their holes and burrows.
Still grumbling to himself, he paid no heed to any sounds he heard, whether they be animal calls or the sounds of sticks breaking. An owl hooted, leering down with its wide yellow eyes before taking off without a sound. It sailed silently through the brush and vanished amidst the tunks. The crow flew ahead, taunting the old man from the branch of an old maple before taking off again and landing further down the path. The clouds overhead, combined with the thick canopy of leaves made the arbor quite dim, but it mattered little to the grumbling man. He pressed on, cursing the gods and his master every step of the way, as well as the crow swarming around above. He tripped over a loose root jutting up from the earthy forest floor and stumbled a bit, but held fast onto the handles of the barrow. He pushed himself back to his feet and gave the protrusion a nasty glare before continuing.
“Always got me doing the dirty work.” he said, angrily. The path led him to the edge of the forest, where a vast clearing opened up, revealing a small, abandoned outpost, a round tower built of ancient, crumbling stones.
Around it was a low ring wall, wrapping around to the river, where part of it had crumbled into the water. Trees leaned over the battlements, peering into the fortress. Critters scurried about the ramparts hiding nuts where sentries once stood. Spider webs filled vacant corners and moss and mold filled the crevices in the stone. The old man laid the wagon down on the ground and put his hands on his hips.
“Well. Here we are.” he said, almost happily. He pushed the cart down the road toward the large gatehouse. The slope was dotted with green trees and bushes.
He neared the ruined stone gate, with its rusty portcullis. As he passed under the doorway, he glanced up affectionately at the murder holes, where a family of bats had taken up residence.
“Hello!” the old man shouted. The sound echoed off the walls, rousing the winged creatures and sending them fleeing through the passage with a chorus of high pitched squeaks. Laughing loudly, he entered the courtyard. The road lead to the base of the tower, where it curled back on itself, forming a loop for wagons. Other paths branched off leading to other buildings. One led to the forge, where the hammer had been rusted to the anvil. The stone stood firm, but had been constricted by numerous vines and weed.
A rickety wooden stable stood the base of the fortification. Inside, a few horses could be heard. A goat called out as well and a cow. A few chickens ran around, fleeing the sound of the cart as it rolled along. They disappeared into a small wooden coop beside the stables. The old man brought the cart to the circle at the base of the tower and let it down nonchalantly. He looked up, admiringly at the stone edifice.
The tower was constructed of thick, rock bricks, which rose in circles. At the top, it widened into a covered ward, dotted with arrow slits and machicolations. Runes had been scribbled all over the stone with the burned ends of timber, giving the pillar a dark hue. Effigies of terrible creatures and fetishes stood vigil in the windows, peering out over the green terrain. Ivy grew. The base of the tower was shod by a raised platform, that formed steps all around it. A low rumble of thunder came and a rain drop fell on on the dirt beside the old man. He sighed and turned back to the wheelbarrow and his cargo.
“Don't go running off." He warned. He moseyed up the stairs and crossed the platform to a heavy wooden door. He pushed it open and slipped inside.
The inner chamber was just as gloomy as the outer face. Sconces lined the walls, but flames to fill them were scarce. A long chain dangled from the ceiling, supporting a round fixture where a half dozen candles burned lazily, lighting little more than the floor beneath them. The remaining light filtered in through the little windows once it managed to pass the grim totems. A wide landing narrowed into a spiraling stair that swirled up the walls. It was railed with black iron. The old man looked up at the stairway which climbed so high it vanished amidst the skinny beams of light filtering in.
"Master’d be much more cheerful if he didn't have to climb all these bloody steps." The man complained, lifting the hem of his cloak again as he began the climb. Every dozen steps, the stairwell evened out, forming a landing, home to a heavy wooden door, each stamped with the same rusted iron tower. Between the doors were little nooks, home to the windows, which bore old bronze busts, once depicting old heroes of the tower’s former inhabitants, now disfigured. He made his way to the top of the stairs, former quarters reserved for the tower's commander. He pushed open the door and came to a wide hall.
Dusty bookshelves stood around the perimeter, lined with tomes and volumes in dozens of languages, some common, others long dead. Time had made the library rich. There were texts on mathematics and alchemy, on history, great thick biographies of notable celebrities of the realm, rolled maps, indexes of plants and animals, star charts, and diagrams of the cosmos. What volumes could not be crammed into the rickety shelves along the walls had been strewn across the surface of a large round table at the center of the room. A dozen chairs lined the outer ring, but only one was occupied.
Resting on the dark wood were a long pair of feet, belonging to a man, appearing to be of some advanced age. He bore a thick grey beard, dusted with darker hairs, trimmed sharp and square to match his hard jawline. His robe was dark wool, belted around the middle with a matching sash. His gaze was sternly fixed upon the open page of one of his numerous volumes and in his veiny hand was a glittering silver goblet half-filled with wine, resting on the arm of his wooden chair. To his left, a bone-bare skeleton stood, holding a fine candelabrum with both hands over his master, dripping hot wax on the floor. The old man at the door cleared his throat timidly. When his master did not look up, the man cautiously shuffled around the edge of the table. His master remained engrossed in his reading. The old man reached the end of his journey and cleared his throat once again. His master was quiet. He licked his thumb and turned the page of his book.
“You’ve returned." The bearded man greeted from his chair. The old man jumped at his master's voice. For a moment he forgot why he stood there. He glanced up at the skull of the candle holder opposite him.
"Yes, my lord." he said, his voice wavering. There was a pause, as the seated man scanned the page before him with his dark eyes.
"And?" he said, not looking. Elwin curled his hands around one another. “What is his condition?” his master asked. He brought the silver cup to his lips and drank.
“He’s a mess.” Elwin admitted.
"Very well." The bearded man said, turning another page. “I’ll need nightshade.” he said.
“Yes, m’lord.” Elwin replied.
“And cassava and bitter lupin.” Davican continued.
“As you command.” Elwin he shuffled his feet to leave, but his lord spoke again.
“And aconite, snakeroot,” his gaze shifted from one page the opposite. “and belladonna."
"Yes, my lord." said Elwin bowing. He turned to leave.
"And we’ll be needing turnips." Continued his master, halting the exodus.
"Yes, master." Elwin replied, he bowed again and headed for the door.
"And more potatoes." Elwin stopped again.
"Yes, master" Elwin tried as best he could to slip away before the voice rang again. It came anyway.
"Onions." the bearded man said.
"Not the usual recipe for this kind of work, my lord..." Elwin said, confused.
“For the soup.” answered his stoic lord. "It has no flavor." Suddenly the orders became clear. Elwin laughed through his nose, but when his master did not seem to share in the joke, he quickly removed the smile from his face.
"Of course, my lord. Beggin' your pardon." He rounded the table once more and vanished through the door.
The bearded man closed his book and stroked the cover almost affectionately. The front was cracked and dry. He drew his fingers down the length of his beard and placed the book on the table. He took his silver cup and swirled it around before finishing the wine that remained. He placed the chalice down on the table and stroked the crow once more with a finger. The bird flapped off its perch on his shoulder and landed at the far end of the table on the back of one of the empty chairs. He got to his feet, heading toward the door. He reached the frame and turned, his eyes falling upon the bony servant. The skeleton remained still, holding the candelabra, dripping wax on the floor.
"Come." he commanded. "We have work to do." The bone statue remained still. Davican's face dropped and he turned and left the room, heading down to the next landing. When he arrived, he pushed open the door, revealing a cramped chamber.
Light almost came in the window, but was shrouded by a shelf, loaded to its creaking wood with more books covered and bound in peeling leather. Racks lined the wall, once home to spears and swords and other weapons. The shelves had been shoved into the room almost carelessly and crammed so thick with books there was hardly room to walk. The man peered through the darkness for a brief moment, but became frustrated after stumbling and brooded back to the stair, where he nearly barreled into the bone-built figure, candelabra in hand, mouth ajar and that vacant, eyeless stare fixed forward, dripping wax on the floor.
"Well come on, then." He said. He turned back to the cabin and disappeared inside.
Elwin wrenched open the door and came storming out of the tower. Arms swinging angrily at his sides, he marched across the stone platform and down the steps, glaring up at the peak of the tower until he bumped hard into the wooden barrow and tumbled over. Before he was down, he was back up and red in the face. He loosed a volley of curses at the wagon, hobbling on his good leg, rubbing the spot where the wood had struck him. He stopped and lifted his cloak to inspect the wound, but his knobby knee was unscathed but for the bruise that had yet to appear. He growled and threw the hem back to the ground, then kicked the cart before grabbing the handles and pushing it forward.
"Let’s go play in the garden." He spat and pushed the cart around the base to the rear of the tower, where a strained belt of fencing fought back the belly of the wild garden. A small gate hanging on by one rusted hinge stood between a small gap in the fence that made for the almost hidden entrance. Beside the flimsy door, was a wicker basket. He took the basket and tossed it into the cart, landing it on the corpse’s stomach. The dark crow circled overhead. Elwin calmly pushed the cart into the garden and set it down with a loud thump as it hit the dirt. He got down on his hands and knees and tore at something, expecting a carrot. When it revealed itself to be a parsnip, he sighed with displeasure and tossed it over his shoulder into the wheelbarrow. He pulled a few more out and hocked them over his shoulder. Most of the projectiles missed the cart entirely. He found the carrots and took them under his arm, sticking one between his teeth. He got to his feet. He dumped the load into the cart and took a bite. He looked around thoughtfully, one hand on the carrot, the other scratching his backside, before he moved to a different part of the garden to continue his search.
In the tower, Davican, now lit by the candles from his skeletal attendant, scanned through the shelves of his library until he found a large tome. It was a heavy volume, bound in leather as the others, but when opened, its leaves bore no words. Instead, the pages were blank. They were organized from lightest to darkest. Some of the pages were covered in hair, while others were smooth and supple. A few were riddled with pockmarks and scars. Davican flipped through the pages until found the one he was looking for, a fair olive tone. He laid the tome on the small table at the room’s center and tore out the leaf. The rip was a sickly silent pulling, not the usual sound made by paper. He slammed the volume shut to the tune of steaks being slapped together and placed it back on the shelf. He rolled the leaf and tucked it inside his cloak. He left the room and continued his way down the stair, leaving his bone-bare servant behind, holding his candelabra, dripping wax on the floor.
At the next landing Davican entered a room home to dozens of glass jars, filled with organs and a viscous fluid suspending them and preserving them. There were hearts, some still beating. There were lungs, stomachs, kidneys, livers, coiled intestines, both large and small. The light poured in first through the window, then through the glass containers and the liquid inside, casting a haunting green glow around the room. In one of the jars, a severed hand made a fist in its prison. Davican took the hand and tucked it under one arm. He went to a rack just by the window that was stacked with tiny vials, home to eyes of every color from brown to milky white. The man drew his finger along the shelf passing eyes green as the woods surrounding his fortress, then brown like Elwin’s dirty garb before settling on a pair of eyes that through the murky viridian liquid seemed turquoise.
“That will do.” he said to no one in particular. He took the vial and tucked into the folds of his cloak before departing. He walked out of the chamber, murmuring to himself quietly and stalked down the winding stair, leaving the boney servant behind.
Elwin danced his way around the garden, holding the basket up with both hands.
“Wonderful afternoon for a dance, Lady Weaver." he said, sweetly to the open container. "It’s nice to have such a spirited partner.” A low rumble of thunder rolled over the tower. Elwin waltzed his way through the garden, singing loudly to each plant he touched.
"I'd like to spend a nightshade with you, Ms. Belladonna. But look out! There's some snake roots in the garden. No, you snakeroot! No! It's gonna be black tonight." he sang. There was a pause. He looked at the basket incredulously. "Well of course it’s black every night.” he said, picking up the beat once more. “But tonight it’ll be extra black. Black tonight, like aconite, my dear." He bent down and plucked leaves and stems, hacking at them with his knife, before slipping the blade between his teeth to get down on his knees. He laid his dance partner on the ground beside him. "Oh, come now, don't be so bitter lupin," he said, laboriously, tugging at the roots. He freed them and nearly fell backwards, but a mad grin came over him and he smiled. "Cassava!" he cried, eyeing the roots. “Been a while since we saw you at one of these gatherings.” he lowered the plants and turned, eyeing the corpse in the wagon with fire in his stare. He shook dirt from plants and tossed them in the basket to join the rest of the herbs. He pushed himself up. He then danced his way back to the wagon and placed the basket gently on the masked cadaver's stomach as if its cargo were a small child. He took one of the limp arms and laid it under the basket as if to cradle it.
"Be careful with that, lad." Elwin said, adoringly. He danced back into the garden. He grabbed a few onions and tore them out by the root. Then with knife in hand he hacked off their green tops and threw them in the back of the wagon one at a time, but for the last one. He eyed it for a moment, then took a bite as if it were an apple.
"That's nice." he said with a mouthful. He walked back to the barrow and held it over the corpse. "Care for a bite?" he asked. "It's tasty." He dangled the onion over the cadaver for a moment. “No?” He cackled and took another bite before slinging the bulb over his shoulder. It disappeared into a bush. He dragged a few more parsnips and turnips out of the ground and tossed them in the cart, along with some more carrots. He reaped celery and garlic and zucchini as well as a half dozen tomatoes. He dumped the lot in the wagon, then grabbed the handles and pulled it out of the garden and back up the dirt path toward the front of the tower. He then took a sack loaded with barley from the granary and slung it over his shoulder. He marched back to the cart and dropped it on the cadaver's groin.
"Oh, sorry.” He chuckled to himself. “Walk it off!" he took up the cart again. He pushed the it back to the base of the tower and marched up to a small, wooden hatch in the stone. He returned to the cadaver and grabbed it under the arms, dragging it onto the stone platform toward the porthole. “Alright, in you go.” he said and he shoved the body down the hole. When the feet disappeared, he put his ear to the opening, listening for a satisfying thump, but when it never came, his face dropped, disappointed. “Shit.” he complained. He sauntered back to the cart and hauled it up the steps and strutted to the door. He wrenched it open and slipped inside. A cupboard under the winding staircase gave him a spindly bristled broom. He tucked it under his arm and marched back outside to the wooden chute. He jammed the handle down the hole, poking at the meaty lump stuck in the tunnel.
"It’s no use," he warned the body, plunging the staff down the tube. "Don't give me that." he argued. "I take orders from your father." There was a pause. “What’s that?” he asked. He put his ear to the chute and a foul look came over his visage. "I will not sit here and take insults from you, you little piss worm." He bellowed. "You'll be-”
"Elwin, what are you doing?" asked his master from the open door. Elwin turned, suddenly startled and terrified, the broom still in his hand. He tossed it down the chute with the cadaver, which granted him his satisfying thump. He smiled, pleased.
"I was just...he just...my lord...a bit of lumber’s stuck is all" He stuttered and sputtered looking for words to help him escape.
"Where is he?” Davican asked, unamused. Elwin looked to the hole and then shifted his eyes back to his master, who was eyeing the wheelbarrow now devoid of its primary cargo. Elwin shifted uneasily.
“He must be around here somewhere,” he said, innocently. He looked around his feet, then back at his master and shrugged.
“We have no time for your games.” Davican said, looking less than pleased. “Bring him in. Then get the goat."
"At once, my lord." Elwin said, bowing. His master shook his head and vanished behind the door. When he was gone, Elwin waited a moment, then stuck his head into the stony vent. He let a glob of spit fall from his lips. It slapped the body as it lay on the cold earth floor. “Even as a corpse you’re as useless as a cock on a crab.” He returned to the cart. The black bird sat in the basket, pecking hopefully at an onion. Elwin swooped down on the wagon and took up the handles, angrily.
"Come on, then." he ordered, heaving forward. He pulled the carriage into the tower's entryway and let it down softly on the stone floor. He pulled open a small cupboard door beside the closet, revealing a dumbwaiter. He took the fruits and vegetables that had managed to escape the wicker carrier and placed them gently on top of one another. He cradled the parcel like a babe in his arms and placed it delicately in the little elevator. He returned for the sack of barley and the herbs and loaded them in as well, then tugged on a rope, which turned a gear, which lowered it into the cellar. He dragged the cart down the winding stairs.
“Stupid." He grumbled as the barrow clacked down each of the steps. “Got the cook doing all the dirty work. You go off to do one simple task and you wind up dead on the floor.” As he finished the sentence, the cadaver came into view, beneath the glowing vigil of the bony servant, the ornate candelabra in its hand, dripping hot wax on the floor. He locked what would have been eyes with the skeletal servant. "You gonna get the door or should I do it?" he asked, coldly.
"Elwin!" the voice came again. The voice sent a chill washing over the man, causing the hair on his back to stand on end.
“On my way!” Elwin answered, almost gleefully. His face became somber, all the fun gone from his bones, the bounce from his step. "I'll get the door." he said, ungratefully, nudging past the osseous attendant. He pulled it open, then yelped loudly when he was greeted by another fleshless servant to the bearded conjurer, standing just inside the room, also bearing a candelabra, dripping wax onto the floor. The little flames cast an orange glow on the skull accentuating its skinless bulges and hollows. The jaw hung open, leaving a look of constant surprise over the grim face.
Elwin entered the room and took in a drag of the dank, musty air. The smell was awful, consisting of rotting meat and dried blood, years upon years of decay and the residues of an assortment emanations, smokes and oils and residues. Elwin's nose wrinkled at the putrid smell. His eyes watered and his throat went dry, but he recomposed himself and smoothed his cloak. "Stand aside, grandpa." he said. He grabbed the skeleton and lifted it by the ribs, then placed it in a corner facing the wall before returning to the antechamber for the corpse. "You'll be the death of me, I swear it." he grumbled to himself as he left.
"Mind your elders, Elwin." His master reminded him. His back was turned and his nose was deep between the open legs of a book, skimming its pages with his dark eyes. One hand tugged the tips of his dark grey beard.
Elwin took the body and slipped his arms under the shoulders, lifting it off the floor to unwind itself. The legs stretched out as he pulled the cadaver into the dim room. He struggled, but managed to get it through the door frame and into the room. Snakes of foul smelling smoke slithered past the moldings, dissipating in the small chamber.
"You know, a spot of help would be nice." he said, straining his voice along with his back. Neither skeleton moved. They had taken up vigils, the candleholders gripped tightly in their bony balled fists, dripping wax onto the floor. Elwin sighed, resignedly. The bearded man kept his nose buried among the leaves of his tome. "Never mind." Elwin said, spitefully. "I've got it."
“Put him on the table.” Davican ordered, still engrossed in his reading.
The room was dim. In the center, a thick slab of black marble had been brought in and inscribed with runes and antiquated symbols. Above it, a round, wrought iron chandelier dangled from a smoke stained chain. Four pylons crowned with flame lit the room as best they could, illuminating the swirling bands of smoke from the burning incense and herbs that almost sweetened the room’s odious stench. The bearded conjurer had taken to reciting ancient words from the volume. The words had a haunting melody and rolled off his tongue with precision. He dusted the bottom of a small stone cup with a sprinkling of powder, the grindings of a few dried leaves. A skull sat on one of the shelves, surveying the scene, eyelessly from the dark pits on either side of its absent nose. A candle jutted out the top and melted wax leaked through the little gaps between the yellowed teeth. Elwin heaved the body onto the stone table. He then leaned on the dark slab, breathing heavily, trying to catch his breath. His master dropped the book hard beside him, startling the old man as it struck the smooth marble between the cadaver’s feet.
"Fetch the goat." His master ordered, before Elwin had stopped huffing and puffing.
"Right." he said, breathlessly. He pushed himself away from the table and soldiered out the door. He gave one longing look to the door opposite the chamber and trudged up the stairs, welcoming the fresh outside air, which lacked the pungent aromas of the cellar. Despite his desire to get outside, each step required more effort than the last as his legs burned with fatigue.
He came out of the tower, and stopped for a moment to catch his breath, leaning all his weight on the frame of the thick wooden door. The sky was growing darker as thick clouds wafted in from the west. He hobbled down the steps and marched across the yard to the stable.
He kicked the door hard, sending it swinging wide open. Inside were three frightened horses. They whinnied their fear and kicked at the doors of their stalls. The largest was a thick, black destrier. He made the strongest effort against the gate, but could not manage to break free, much to Elwin’s relief. The other two were a chesnut mare and a dusty gray palfrey, a farm horse that hardly made a peep before returning to its nibbles.
"None o' that!" he said, sharply, jabbing a finger at them. "You don't want to go where he's going." He fanned out his arms, taking on the form of a big, brown bat and descended upon the goat, a skittish thing, with long black fur and a stubby pair of horns curling out of its head. Elwin took it by the rope around its neck and tugged it away from its back of feed. The goat argued with him, but he pulled harder, dragging the animal back toward the tower.
“Come on!” He said every time the creature would tug against the line. “Destined for great things you are.” He fought with the beast up each cold stone step and to the door. “Right now you think you want to get back to stuffing your face, and I don’t blame you, but you’re needed for a much better cause. Did you know that?” He stopped at the door and coiled the rope around his arm before pulling the soft wooden handle. “Did you have any idea when you woke up this morning that you’d be helping bring a spoiled little shit back from the flames of the underworld?” He waved his hands through the air. The goat tugged at the rope. “Well that makes two of us. Come on then.” He heaved the goat into the tower and down the stairs. As he descended, the fresh air of the outside turned foul and the familiar odors of death and rot filled his nose to bursting. His eyes were watering and his vision blurred when he finally ushering the goat into the dark chamber. Elwin leaned on the table, breathing heavily as the goat took a lap around the room, bumping into one of the metal pylons, causing the flame to rock back and forth. It then found a corner it liked and laid there lazily.
"Will there be anything else, my lord?" Elwin asked, eyeing the goat angrily. The bearded warlock handed him the eyeballs, white and slippery with the pupils as little black sand islands in a sea of crystalline water. Elwin took them in one hand and with the other, tore the clothen sack from the cadaver's face revealing the mangled mess it had been left to be buried with. One of the eyes dangled by a stringy, red tether of nerves while the other had been lost, leaving a dark hole behind. “You two are peas in a pod, eh?” he nudged the skeleton to his left and it rocked on its foundations for a moment. He tugged away the remaining eye and threw it at one of the skeleton. “Here hold this.” he said as it bounced off the servant’s rib cage and fell to the floor. He placed each new eye in a socket, staring blankly forward at the ceiling. He then held a hand over the dead face, which bore several deep guts and oozing gashes. "How many fingers am I holding up?" he asked playfully. He glanced to his lord for support, but Davican paid him no notice. Elwin looked back and forth between the pair of skeletons but received the same icy response as they stared into one another’s empty eye holes, holding their candelabras, dripping wax onto the floor. Davican handed him the sheet from his book of tones. Handling the leaf delicately, Elwin tore off small strips and laid them carefully over the corpse's scarred facade like uncooked bacon. When he was finished, he looked to his master for his next order, standing sheepishly with his hands at his side.
“Is the soup almost ready?” Davican asked, staring down at his book.
“Almost, m’lord.” Elwin replied eagerly.
“You should return to it then.” the man said. He licked his thumb and turned a page.
"Yes, m'lord." answered Elwin, bowing. “At once.” He took his leave, closing the door behind him, locking in all the unpleasant aromas. He took a deep breath of the earthy, cold, damp, air of the cellar and at a relaxed stroll, set off for the receiving end of the the dumbwaiter, passing the empty wheelbarrow. He opened the cupboard and with a few tugs of the line, the bushel of vegetables came screeching down on the little wooden platform. To his dismay, a few of the herbs were still nestled among the tomatoes and onions. He turned to the door, his expression weary. A soft chanting came through the wood and iron bands. He shook his head.
“Nope.” He said, picking up the basket. He took the herbs in one hand and dropped them into the bed of the barrow. “Nope, nope, nope.” He headed for the door and pulled it open, unleashing the sweet smell of soup, which wetted his mouth, purging the smell of death and magick.
He smelled the boiled chicken and carrots and celery and garlic that had been simmering in a large forge black cauldron at the far end of the hall. A warm fire roared beneath the kettle, filling the dim hall with a soft, tangerine glow. Elwin smiled gleefully as the warm air and succulent aromas washed over him. He wafted inside, gliding across the dirt floor to the blazing hearth where the covered cauldron vented steam and the rich aroma of brew from beneath the buckler sized lid. He took in the bouquet in as deeply as he could, closing his eyes as it filled him up, warming him inside and out, pure ecstasy. On either side of the mantle, were two more fireplaces, punctuated wall sconces between them, that held unlit torches. On the floor, a large wooden spoon, or perhaps a small paddle for a little canoe leaned against the stone. Beside it, an iron rack held a poker for the fire as well as a brush and a little dustpan. Above, a ram’s head trophy kept vigil out over the hall from a wooden plaque hanging from the wall. Its spectacular horns curled twice before ending in black points.
"It's awfully dim in here, my love." he said, peering around the long gray hall. He took one of the torches from the wall and touched it to the hot coals, setting it ablaze. He lifted it to the other unlit torch and the immediate area came to life with a warm orange glow. Next, he carried the flame to the table and standing on the seat of a chair he climbed onto the wooden surface and set the dry logs in a low basin at its center aglow. The round brazier was filled with brittle coals and old pine logs that caught quickly, burned hot and filled the room, revealing all it had to offer.
One of the walls was lined with cupboards, many of them missing doors. They housed dozens of pots and cauldrons and kettles, each of a different size and form, accompanied by an army of saucepans and skillets of as many dimensions as the pots. They were square and shallow, round and deep, round and shallow, square and deep. Some were triangles and hexagons and other odd shapes, all warped and misshapen from years of wear and misuse. A long counter ran down the length of the wall beneath the row of cupboards, filled with drawers, where lived ladles and spoons and forks of all different materials and designs. One drawer was home to an arsenal of knives that ranged from mighty cleavers to the tiniest of paring blades. There were cheese scoops and berry forks and butter knives.
A large stove sat at the center of the countertop, supported beneath by a pair of ovens. Nestled between two of the ovens, was a washbasin, large enough for a pair of lovers to lounge in. At the heart of the room, a great circular table spread out, a flat ring of dark wood, barren of all but cracks in its wooden surface, with the fire burning at its hollow heart. The wall on the far side of the table was almost hidden behind a long stack of firewood. Much of it had been sitting unused for so long it had begun to rot. Spiders crawled about on the logs and mice had managed to build burrows between them.
Elwin returned the burning torch to its place on the wall. He took a dirty white apron that hung on the back of one of the chairs and slipped it over his head. He tied it behind his back and danced his way to the basket of produce, carrying it to the counter on the wall. Taking his hands away, he saw the filth and grime covering them, that turned them brown, the same shade as his cloak.
“Can’t have that.” he said, cheerfully. He skipped to the washbasin and drove his hands into the water. Scrubbing them, he mused to himself. “I’ll not have any of that shit stain’s muck getting into my soup.” He brought his hands out and dried them on his cloak as he returned to the basket.
He took the vegetables one by one and laid them out on the table. First was the garlic, then beside that the onions, their greens still attached, follwed by a half dozen leeks, then the carrots and parsnips. He took up one of the turnips and brushed a bit of dirt off before setting it down with the rest of them. “Ugh. Potatoes! I’ve forgotten the potatoes.” he said sheepishly. He meandered toward the door and pushed it open.
A blast of cold air struck him in the face. He shivered as he passed the empty wheelbarrow. The herbs were missing, much to his pleasure and the door opposite his sanctuary remained firmly closed, though as he tip-toed past it a chill scurried up his spine. He gave the door a wary look and moved to the door beside it, pulling it open to reveal a deep pantry.
Shelves reached up as high as the ceiling and wrapped around the walls of the closet, stocked with cheeses, bottles of wine, barrels of ale, sacks of oats and other grains, and an assortment of other dried goods, and at the bottom, in a large wooden basket, sat a burlap sack leaking potatoes. He gathered the spuds up in a makeshift carrier, using his soiled apron and shut the door, hurrying as fast as he could to get back to the warmth of the kitchen.
When he returned, he pulled open one of the drawers. He snatched a vegetable peeler and bumped it closed with his hip, then pulled open a second, revealing a butcher’s armory. He took a rolled up bundle of cloth out and let it fly open on the counter, unveiling half a dozen jagged silver blades. The largest among them was the size of a machete, it’s long slender blade straight and clean, glimmering with the light of the fire. He admired the blade, giving it eyes reserved for a lover. “I wish.” he chuckled. “Maybe someday, love.” He slid the blade back into the sheath and chose a more modest blade not much longer than his spindly hand and set it down on the counter, rolling up the rest of them and tucking them back in drawer. He then side stepped, dragging his rear foot along the dirt floor to another cabinet. He pulled it open and dug his hand inside, pulling out a large wooden cutting board, smooth, but for the marks of knives and made of strips of alternating woods, first a light ash and then a darker, rich mahogany.
Elwin took each vegetable in turn and dunked it in the wash basin, cleaning off all the dirt and grime of the garden, before setting them back in their places. When they were all clean, he hacked off the greens and threw what he had no use for in the flaming basin at the center of the wooden table. The greens smoldered, causing more smoke than anything. The smoke drifted up to the ceiling in a wafty cloud before it found its way up the chimney.
He set to peeling each clove of garlic, stripping the brittle outsides and trimming the ends before he diced each bulb into tiny granules. As he sliced the tiny bits into tinier bits they began to grow distant, but he gathered them up with the side of the blade, forming a pile, which he then set to dicing. The knife rapped on the wood as it quickly rose and fell. Once minced, he stretched out his hand and took a bowl from the cabinet and pushed the bits in with the edge of the knife. He took the bowl over to the kettle and put his hand on the top to remove it, but quickly recoiled at the hot feel of it. He squealed and stuck his finger in his mouth, then took it out to survey the damage.
"Naughty, naughty." he said, giving the cauldron a dirty look. He then wrapped the sleeve of his cloak around the wound and tried again, removing the pot's lid and standing it against the stone on the wall. He overturned the bowl and the garlic fell into the hot water to dissolve and add its flavor. He swirled the great wooden spoon about a few times before returning to the rest of the vegetables. He chopped them in half, then into quarters and eighths, then sliced them across until they too were in tiny pieces. As he chopped and hacked, his eyes began to water, his vision to blur. Soon he could barely see what he was doing and dropped the knife on the counter, feigning deep sobs as the onions made him utterly blind. He wept and pounded on the counter, quite theatrically, jamming the knife into the wooden countertop.
“Why, onions?” he begged between weepings. “Why must you do this to me every time?” The sound of a clearing throat came from behind and brought him to a startling halt. Half choking, half blind, he turned, wiping his eyes and found his master, looking unenthused at the door staring at him through his whiskers.
"I need you." Davican said, quietly. Without another word, he turned from the door and was gone. Elwin wiped his eyes dry as best he could and headed out of the warm glowing room, back into the chilly, grim hall and then through the door, where the smell of the soup was stifled beneath a pillow of odious stench.
The goat was limping around the room wildly, knocking into things, causing a ruckus. Bones littered the floor as the skeletal attendants had been thrown asunder. Their candelabras had fallen to the floor, their wicks still alight, dripping wax onto the floor.
“Good work, gentlemen,” Elwin said, with a nod to the bones. The skulls of the attendants lay on the floor, mouths agape. The cadaver lay nude on the stone table, his new hand sewn onto where had been the bloody stump. Elwin looked to his master who nodded to the goat, his eyes bored with frustration. Elwin looked pleadingly at his master, but the eyes had become focused on the pages of the ancient leather-bound book. Elwin looked to the goat, mournfully.
"Alright." he said, approaching the goat. “It’s okay, little one.” he said. “No need to fret.” He neared the goat, but the animal flailed wildly, nearly knocking him over and scampering to another part of the room. “Alright, enough of that,” Elwin snapped.
"The club is somewhere on the floor." His master said, absently. Elwin dodged a blow from the goat's good leg and suddenly, driven by his desire to get out of the horribly smelling chamber, found himself scanning the floor until he found a heavy wooden bat on the floor. He took up the club and held it in one hand as the ram scrambled its way around the stone table, crying out fearfully. Davican opened his mouth to offer counsel, but the animal knocked him into the wall and limped itself into the furthest corner of the room. Its feet slipped on the bones of the bony butlers and it stumbled.
“We have no time for this.” Davican grumbled, trying to find where he had left off in his book. Elwin turned and took a step toward the cowering goat, raising the cudgel. The animal bleated and limped away, but could not outrun the blow rained down upon it. Elwin brought the bludgeon down hard on the goat's head, shattering a horn and sending it slumping to the ground in a heap. Tears still in his eyes, he took the animal by the front hooves and lashed it to the iron rack. It dangled there as he fastened the hind legs as well. When the work was done, the goat was spread eagle, its head dangling limply over the face of the cadaver. Elwin turned to his master who was battering the herbs to dust with mortar and pestle. Elwin's stomach began to turn, flopping sickly in his cloak.
"Anything else, my lord?" he asked, meekly. Davican produced a gnarled dagger from within his cloak. The handle was shimmering obsidian. The muted light of the flames hit the blade, but was not refracted. It seemed as though the blade stole the fire’s light and held it prisoner. Elwin took the knife in hand and looked to the unconscious goat.
“Apologies, mate.” he said, uncomfortably. He touched the blade to the goat’s neck and closed his eyes, looking away before drawing it across, spewing blood forth onto the cadaver’s patched up face and chest. When Elwin opened his eyes again, his hand had been stained red. His apron had been splashed scarlet as well. A drop or two had managed to land on his face, hauntingly tickling his cheeks. “Will that be all, m’lord?” he asked, placing the knife in a shallow bronze basin on a rickety side table.
"Nothing else, Elwin, get back to the kitchen.” the man replied coldly. Elwin glanced once more at the goat, then the blood stained body and bowed and headed for the door.
"Hold it together, boys." he said, with one last glance to the wrecked skeletons on the floor. He slipped through the door and back into the frigid cellar. He turned and looked back in at the body laid on the stone table, clouds of smoke broiling above, lit by the flaming pylons and the candles above. His bearded master appeared at the door, mortar in hand and pushed the door closed, containing the rank smell within. When the door was closed, Elwin returned to the pantry and opened the door. He took a bottle of wine. He put the stopper between his teeth and pulled hard. It popped open and he downed a swig of the dry red inside. It warmed him from the inside out as it ran down his throat driving away some of the demons that might have followed him out of his master’s haunted chamber.
He returned to the kitchen, wiping his mouth. Warm air was flowing through the doorway with the dancing shadows of the fire’s orange radiance. He stood by the fire for a moment, the bottle held under his arm as he rubbed his hands together and pressed them toward the crackling embers. He put the bottle on the mantle and took the long, wooden spoon to give the cauldron a stir before returning to his chopping.
He diced the tomatoes and threw them in the same bowl the garlic and onions had travelled in. He turned the carrots and parsnips into coins and flung them into the soup one at a time, a few of them missing and landing in the coals to blacken and crisp.
“That’s why I’m the cook.” he said, with a disparaging look at the door. The potatoes and turnips he made into chunks and dolled into the cauldron. In another drawer he found seasonings and spices. He took small wooden cases filled with parsley and dill and thyme and sprinkled them into the brew before taking a salt shaker and grinding a few grains in as well. When that was done, he found a pepper mill the size of his arm and ground the corns into black dust which landed on the surface of the liquid like dark ash. When there was nothing else to do, he returned to the mantle for his bottle and took another sip of wine. He gave the container a quick glance and poured a hefty swig into the cauldron.
"Have a drink on me." he said, lovingly. “Hard work, cooking, isn’t it?"
A frothing scream came from across the hall, audible through both doors as the goat bleated and gargled frantically. The sound sent the bottle flying from Elwin’s hand.
“Shit!” he cried, covering his ears as it shattered on the floor. A sudden cold gust raked through the kitchen, reducing the fire to glowing embers. The torches were snuffed out. The large fire in the basin shrank to only its glowing cinders. Smoke billowed up the chimney in thick clouds. Elwin's cloak nearly blew off his shoulders. He pushed it down to stay decent. Anger flashed in his eyes.
"Ooh, no! No you don't!" he cried. He bounded across the room, snatching a log from the pile of timber, then returned to the fireplace and threw it onto the burning pile, sending auric sparks shooting up the chute. "Every fucking time.” he complained loudly. “You won't have my fire and you won’t have my soup! No! No soup for you! No! No! No! No! No!" He stood for a moment kicking the log into place until his toes were nearly set aflame. The icy wind chopped right through his sore muscles to the bone, coating Elwin in an icy film he had to shake off. He shivered against the frigid maelstrom, teeth chattering. He grabbed the iron poker and jabbed at the coals, shifting them about, until the new logs caught fire. A large spider dashed past his foot. “Where do you think you’re off to?” Elwin asked of the creature raising a foot. He brought it down on the tiny terror with a satisfying crunch. Exhaling, he could see his breath in fluffy clouds.
“Here we go again,” he said, bitterly. His master’s work had begun in earnest, he knew. His least favorite part of the ordeal, it often involved spirits whose arrival was joined with a cold gust wind or giant burst of flame or part of the ceiling having to be replaced. The goat went quiet. The ground seemed harder, less forgiving. Every step left his sore muscles aching as if a giant weight had been placed on his back. Smoke fell from the extinguished brands in soft torrents, like silky waterfalls, flowing over the floor, under the table and through the crack in the door frame. No matter the weather, a rumble of thunder seemed to be on call for the occasion. He noticed too, all the pests, whether rats or simple spiders and worms, fled from the chamber and lunged themselves into burrows or dark holes in the earthy floor.
Elwin kindled flames in the neighboring hearths to stave off the icy terrors from entering his sanctuary and slumped into a chair, where he sat for a moment, staring at the burning coals, taking in the delectable scents that danced around him. He took in the air in a large gulp through his nose and held it for a moment before letting it slide rush out through his mouth in a relaxed torrent.
Elwin watched the fire burn beneath the kettle, listening to the gentle popping of air escaping the blaze. He began to doze off when a sudden rush of flames illuminated the room, nearly blinding him and sending a surge of bubbles streaming over the lip. It hissed like a vengeful serpent upon hitting the hot coals. Elwin shot up at once, and grabbed the wooden spoon.
“There, there, darling,” he said, gently. “Calm down, it’s alright.” He dragged the oar through the broth desperately. The flames returned to their normal state and the soup simmered down. He tasted it once, savouring the hot comfort as it slid down his throat. He added a pinch more salt, then tasted it again, then added another pinch of salt. Several times he added tiny amounts of one spice and then another until both the saltshaker and the pepper grinder had been emptied into the cauldron as well as the boxes of herbs.
When he could find nothing more to add to the broth, he slumped down in a chair by the fireplace. A few he let the warmth of the hearth creep into his sore bones, alleviating the tension in his ligaments.
“I guess that’s it then.” he said, relieved. He took a nut from his pocket and began to shell it, but as he did so, his eyes grew heavier, his long day catching up with him. His head began to sway. His tight grip on the snack loosened. He tried to lift his chin off his chest, but as his eyes rolled into the back of his head, he saw only the flames and then everything went black.
Barely a minute passed before a rush of flame flew up the chimney. Elwin’s eyes slammed open, rapping against his forehead like a loose door on a windy day. The fire threatened to consume the cauldron, which was almost completely hidden by the red shroud. "Damn it!" Elwin complained, as the smoke stung his eyes. It burned his nostrils. He snatched the fire iron and dragged the logs away, pushing them along the dirt to the other fire pits, which had gone up as well. The room was bright red as if the sun were shining. The basin at the center of the table was crisping the wooden ring around it. Smoke billowed, blinding him in a thick grey fog. Elwin groped along the wall until he found a cool ring of metal hanging from the wall. He knocked on the wall above it and a hollow sound answered. HE tugged on the ring and a bit of dirt fell away as a hidden passage opened. A rat scampered out and scurried about Elwin's feet.
"Oh, no you don't!" he said, swinging his foot. He landed a lucky blow, sending the pest careening down the black corridor. He put his hands on his hips and watched as it vanished into the darkness. The fog carried through the door and down the hall. Elwin yawned, covering his mouth with the back of his hand and walked down the long hall to the door. The cool air broke over him as he moved to the pantry once again and opened the door. He gathered a loaf of bread and two more bottles of wine.
He returned to the kitchen and slumped down in his warm chair by the fire. He tore off a chunk of the bread and shoved it into his mouth, chewing ravenously. He tore out the soft innards, leaving the crust behind, but then devoured some of that as well. The onslaught did not last long. Before he had finished chewing, the warmth of the fire had conjoined with his exhaustion and the old man’s chin dropped to his chest. The bottle of wine in his hand fell to the floor, accompanied by the bread that still belonged to the loaf. Elwin’s eyes closed slowly and remained shut.
Barely a moment later, the kitchen door swung open and Davican appeared, looking much less the man that had entered that chamber. His expression was lower, dimmer, also extinguished by the dark goings on on the altar. There were spots of blood on his cheek and a splash on his robe. He stalked toward Elwin and drew out the chair beside him before collapsing in it. He took the bottle of wine from the floor and uncorked it, pouring himself a glass, which he had to retrieve himself from one of the cabinets.
“Elwin.” he said, looking up from the drink as he poured it. He put the bottle down hard on the counter. “Elwin!” he shouted, but the old man did not stir. Davican took a sip, looking thoroughly unhappy. He moved across the room softly in his leather boots. He put his face close to the old man’s and slapped him. Elwin stirred awake.
“Gut you!” Elwin shouted, stirring violently from his sleep. “I’ll gut you, I swear on my cock I’ll-” When he found his master staring at him, he shrank in his chair, eyes frozen in terror.
“Set the table.” Davican decreed. He then sat down beside the old man, his arm resting on the table, expectantly.
Elwin sprung out of his chair and dashed to the cupboard. He took a pair of earthenware goblets. No, better use the wooden ones. Oh, be damned. He took three fine silver chalices and laid them out on the table. He uncorked the wine and filled his master's cup. Without a word, Davican took it and drank.
"Care for some soup, my lord?" Elwin asked politely. "You should eat something, get that chill out of your bones." His master, nodded slowly, not looking up at him. Elwin took one of the bowls and darted to the culinary armory where he snatched a ladle from the hanging rack, then shot to the pot and doled out a bit of the soup, chicken, broth, and vegetables all into the bowl. His master sat wearily in the chair, his whiskers orange around the tips, radiating with the fire’s warmth. Elwin slapped three hearty helpings of the stew into the bowl. He put it before his lord. “There ya go.” he said. “There must be half a dozen chickens in this brew. It should feed us for a fortnight.” He drew a bread knife out of the arsenal and hacked off three slices as thick as the heavy wooden door and put them on the plate before the conjurer. As his master delved into the soup with his spoon, Elwin filled his own cup with the sweet red wine, spilling some of if over the edge and onto the wooden tabletop. Using his sleeve, he quickly mopped it up, hoping the man would not see.
"Thank you, Elwin," Davican said, wistfully. This took the grumpy old man by surprise. His master was not in the habit of showing gratitude and often mistook him for another name, sometimes Evan or Elvis. "Would you fetch the goat?" his master asked. Elwin's eyes dragged themselves to the door. He hesitated, wringing his hands together.
“Yes, my lord." he said, reluctantly, his tongue dragging along the dirt of the first syllable. He shuffled out of the kitchen, away from the fire and across the hall, passing through the chill and past the barrow. He pulled open the door, releasing the horrid stench, now magnified tenfold.
Sulphur, like the smell of a thousand rotted eggs, green and gooey filled his nose. It was then joined by the smell of burning hair and caratin. Singed meat joined the odious symphony, accompanied by a woodsy smoke like a forest fire. They wrapped their smelly tendrils around Elwin’s facde and swam up his nose. He drew his hood about him, covering his nose hoping to keep some of the horrid smells out, but it seemed he only locked them inside, to battle with his nose hairs.
Elwin became glad he had not had a chance to taste the soup yet, or he would be tasting it a second time as it spilled forth from his tightening stomach. His eyes watered at the stench, his nose wrinkled, his face all screwed up. A puff of smoke billowed out of the chamber, revealing behind it the two skeletal attendants, both reassembled and bearing their candelabras, dripping wax onto the floor. They stood side by side, their candles flickering gently in the still air as the wax melted and slid down their pale candle shafts. The cadaver was scarred and naked, lying still on the stone table. His hands and legs were stretched out just as before. His eyes were closed and his face stitched back together from where the townsfolk had mangled it. He looked as if nothing had happened. His features were smooth and handsome. His hard, smooth jaw line was still smeared red, along with his torso and shoulders. Red dots trailed off down his abdomen.
The racked goat did not look at all the same as it had when Elwin left it. The fur was gone, burned clean off down to the bare blackened muscle. Still smoking, the meat’s pleasant smell could only be discerned once Elwin stood beside it. The horns were charred and glossy and the eyes erupted from the sockets, leaking down onto the floor. Smoke seeped from the roasted carcass in swirling ringlets. Elwin touched the steel rack, but with a sizzle he took his hand away, thrusting it in his mouth to nurse the stinging burn.
“Damn it!” he cried, furiously. He inspected the damage and wrapped his hands in the cuffs of his long robe. He took the racked lamb and brought it into the kitchen, leaning it against the wall beside the hearth where the soup bubbled. He removed a log, to allow the stew to simmer and tossed in the adjacent fire to keep the chill at bay.
The kitchen grew warm and the frothing kettle settled, keeping hot, becoming richer with every bubble that rose to the surface. Elwin sliced off a few portions of the ram's barbecued carcass and laid them out on the table before finally taking his bowl to the cauldron. He filled it with the steaming broth and collapsed in his own chair, finally. Relaxing, he let out a restful sigh and stared at the steam as it rose from his bowl. Bits of carrot and celery poked through the broth like felled trees in a tiny lake of gold.
Both servant and master supped on the soup for quite some time in silence, accompanied only by the unsteady beat of the crackling fire. Elwin could not help but smile, grinning madly with every bite, no matter how he tried to hide it from his master. The carrots fell to pieces in his mouth. The onions and garlic had all but dissolved as expected and every bite of chicken burst with flavor in his mouth. The more he ate, the more he wanted to eat. He became ravenous, but all the while took his time, savoring each bite, trying hard to control his urge to upturn the bowl and down as much as he could before it ran down his chin. Each time he dragged the spoon through the bowl, he took with it an equal amount of meat and vegetables, ensuring every taste was the perfect experience. He could feel the icy chill melting away, washed down his throat by the warm goodness. Despite his best efforts, a few sounds escaped his lips, whimpers and moans as he gave himself ompletely to the bowl and put himself at its mercy.
Before long, he was left with only broth in the bowl, he sliced off a piece of the dry bread and dipped it into the bowl. It went soft in his mouth, chewy and delectable. Before he could stop himself, however, the soup and bread were both gone. He looked up from his bowl sadly and glanced at his master who slowly and absently shoveled the soup into his mouth, dripping some down his beard, but paying little mind to it. He seemed more interested in the wine, pouring himself a fourth glass and emptying the bottle. He set it down hard on the tabletop and let his hand fall. The pair seemed as though either one of them might collapse at any moment. Elwin’s hunger however kept him awake, at least for the moment. He licked his lips, tasting the salty chicken broth still remaining on them and turned to the stewing kettle. Timidly, he got to his feet and shuffled to the pot. As his fingers touched the iron ladle, however, there came a scream from the far chamber and he dropped it with a plop right into the bubbling broth.
“Shit!” he cried after dipping his hand in the brew without thinking. He took it out and shook the soup from it like a wet dog, then cradled the hand. “Oh, haven’t you caused enough trouble for me for one day?” he kicked the cauldron and a great wave came pouring out over the brim, hissing on the hot coals beneath it. As the sound died away, Elwin turned to face the door, his expression changing from anger to a fearful aprehension.
The sound was a horrid shriek, unlike any he had heard before. Not even the ram had made such a sound during its part in the incantation. Elwin looked to his master, who seemed to either not notice, or was ignoring the sound, focusing all his being on to the stew in front of him, though he merely twirled his spoon around in circles at the base of his bowl, watching the currents swirl around each other in a gentle maelstrom.
"Sounds worse than last time.” Elwin said, as the cry raged on. It broke only for a moment, and continued.
“It is worse than last time.” Davican replied.
“Should I go help him, m'lord?" the old man asked, looking worried.
"He's not a boy." his master said, sternly, still spinning the spoon amidst the broth. "Fill my cup." he ordered. Hands quivering, Elwin grasped the bottle and pulled the cork free and filled the conjurer’s cup, wincing at the sounds emerging from the other room. Elwin sat, cautiously as if something unpleasant might be on his chair. He was pouring himself another cup of wine when the horendous cry ceased. His eyes flew to the door. Suddenly the silence was overwhelming. Wine spilled over the edge of his cup, but he payed it no attention, his eyes fixed forward, frozen.
He heard the sound of the door grinding open across the hall, accompanied by a loud sniffle. There was silence until another door, the pantry by the sound of it also opened. There was a distant rattling of bottles until one of them was uncorked and the door was closed again. Elwin watched, his eyes on the door, listening to any sound that came through, every one of them crisp in his ears as if they were coming from just beside him.
A hard kick, forced the door open, striking the wall and revealing a tall, naked man in the opening. His face was stained red, but for the forget-me-not eyes that stared forward. His short golden hair was thick with coagulated globs of scarlet. The blood tapered off as it neared his feet. In each hand, the original as well as the newly attached, was a bottle of wine, one of them already open. He raised the bottle to his lips and drank. He was tightly muscled from his broad, bloody shoulders to his sturdy, spattered legs. His bare feet hugged the ground firmly where he stood. His sinewy torso was a hatch-work of scars, some small and others that wrapped around to his back. The face was gaunt, half hidden in shadow, but what could be seen was not unpleasant. He yawned, covering his mouth with the back of his hand, the unopened bottle still clenched in his sturdy new fingers.
"Good morning, father." he said, sleepily. The man soldiered in, squinting one eye as he neared the light and slumped down lazily at the table. “Elwin,” he greeted with a nod. He put the still corked bottle of wine on the table and scratched the back of his head.
“It’s awfully bright in here.” he said, groggily, holding up a hand to sheild himself from the light of the fire in the basin at the heart of the table. Elwin had no words and so those were the words he chose, but smiled politely and turned back to his soup. Davican continued his dance with the spoon.
“What happened?” he asked, his tone lightly spiced with anger. The man ignored him. He reached for his bowl and slid it across to Elwin, who had tried to retreat into his cloak, once the former cadaver took his seat beside him, leaving him caught between the beard and the bloody face.
"Isn’t there anything to eat?” he asked, tipping his empty bowl. The bearded conjurer said nothing. Elwin remained cautiously quiet. The man looked to the hearth and eyed the bubbling cauldron. “Here, Elwin.” he said. “Be a dear and fill that up for me?” the question sounded less than polite, but Elwin instinctively reached for the vessel.
"He's not a boy, Elwin." He said firmly, interrupting the action. "He can handle it himself." Elwin stopped and pulled his hand away slowly, staring at the bowl, then moving his eyes to the red faced man and from there to his bearded master.
“Shhh.” urged the man with blood on his face. He put a finger to his lips. “You’re in a state, aren’t you?” Davican stared fiercely into his bowl. The man chuckled. “Of course you are.” he said. He scratched the side of his head, just over the ear and pushed his chair back, getting to his feet and leaning back in a great stretch. Elwin turned his head away, going red in the face. His master kept his face forward. The nude grabbed his bowl and walked over to the cauldron, bowl in hand. He filled it with broth and the rest and took his seat. He grabbed what remained of the bread and tore out the soft innards, leaving the crust on the table. Elwin watched in silence, fearful to speak or even move.
“What happened?” Davican repeated. The man paid him no mind, devouring his food while the bearded man sat opposite him, staring into his bowl as if waiting for it to dance or float away. The naked man tore off chunks of bread and stuffed them into his mouth, spooning in the broth as if trying to put out a fire. He uncorked one of the bottles of wine he had brought with him and tossed the stopper into the fire before flipping up the bottom of the bottle and downing a deep swig.
“You may want to let that breathe.” the bearded conjurer said, stiffly. “That’s an old wine.” The only reply was a wink given as the last drops of the vintage disappeared down the man’s red stained trap.
“Tastes fine to me,” the man answered. He then took spoon to bowl in his unyielding siege. He devoured each softened vegetable and bit of chicken like a hound, hardly needing the utensil at all. After downing the first helping, the man sniffed hard, took his empty bowl and meandered over to the cauldron, where he filled it again with a quick dunk, sweeping through the liquid like a duck's foot through a murky pond. He took the ladle and brought forth some meat and other bits before returning to his seat.
“Your mason friend in the village isn’t a very nice man.” he said, dropping down heavily in his seat and continued to scarf the stew down his gullet.
“An acquaintance.” Davican corrected. “I would hardly call him a friend.”
“Not sure what I’d call him now.” the naked man said, looking over the rim of his soup bowl. “Did they bury him or burn the body?” He brought the bowl to his face and drank in deep swallows.
“There is an entire cauldron on that fire." Brooded the bearded one. "You needn’t eat so brazenly.”
“I’m hungry.” The man replied shortly, a ball of chewed chicken rolling around in his trap. He popped open his second bottle of wine and took a huge swig. “Elwin. Do you know?” The old man had almost disappeared inside his cloak. He emerged, thoroughly confused.
“Know what?” he asked, dazed.
“The stonemason.” said the naked man. “Did they bury him or did they burn the body?”
“What is that to you?” Davican cut in.
“Just wondering.” He brought the bowl to his lips, downed what remained in it and let it down hard on the table with a loud, unsettling crack!
“I have an undertaking for you.” said the bearded one.
“Do you, now?” replied the man, picking at the crusty shell of the bread. His eyes moved back to the bubbling pot over the fire. He pushed himself up and took the bowl in hand, walking toward the cauldron. “So soon? I’ve only just gotten back.”
“Elwin speaks of talk in the village.” the master said, dismissing the comment.
“Men talk.” the bloody man arrived at the stewpot. “Too much, I think. Waste of time. Anything worthwhile, Elwin?” Elwin shifted uncomfortably in his seat and glanced at the stewing cauldron. He yearned for another bowl but could not bring himself to move, not while the boy was still taking his fill and naked as the day he was born.
“The northern mountains have been abuzz.” The bearded man said, matter of factly. “The dwarves seem to be rather excited about something.”
"You mean other than their family jewels and golden rods?" the boy asked, filling his bowl. He returned to the table and sat back down. “I hope they buried him. A modest headstone.”
“I want you to travel to Feriko and find out what, if anything, they are doing beneath those mountain peaks.”
“And if I refuse?” asked the man, chewing a bit of carrot.
“If you refuse?" the bearded man asked. The naked man pulled a leg of chicken from the bowl. He grabbed the crust of bread and put the meat between it making a small sandwich, which he stuffed in his mouth.
"Refuse and I’ll put you back in the ground.” The naked man laughed.
“You’re welcome to try.” he said, challengingly.
“Your failures have cost me more than your triumphs have gained.”
“You love to bring up the old days, don't you dad? I knew missed me." He spooned some vegetables into his mouth, chewing loudly. The bearded man tightened his grip on the spoon, letting his hand fall to the table. He turned his gaze forward again. "What day is it?” asked the naked one, taking another swig from the wine bottle. The bearded man gave no reply, but his cold frontward stare. “Elwin?” The old man, had been quietly edging toward the stewpot, hoping to go unnoticed as he helped himself to more. Upon hearing his name, he went rigid, nearly dropping the scooping ladle. He turned, timidly.
“Tuesday, m’lord.” He answered, quietly.
“No, I mean the date, what’s the date?” Bottle in hand, the boy rested his arm on his chair.
“It is the nineteenth.” Interjected the old master through his beard and clenched jaw. “What does that matter?” Elwin went silent. He could feel the tension building in the kitchen, more likely than the stew to boil over, but taking a frightful, painful long time. He nearly bolted for the door, but his hunger kept him where the hot stew was.
“You let me rot up there for a week?” asked the man indignantly, chewing on some potato. His fist, balled around his spoon's handle hit the table hard. "A week?"
“I would have left you up there until the birds had picked you clean, but we have work to do. The Warlord is on his way and we have nothing to offer."
"Maybe if you’d get more done if you didn’t have your cook do all your dirty work?" replied the naked man, gesturing to Elwin with his spoon.
“Elwin has been serving in your stead while you were...predisposed.” Davican said.
“And a damn good job he’s been doing.” the naked man said, raising his bottle. “Good work, Elwin. Well done. I’d say you’ve earned a vacation.” Elwin’s eyes began to glimmer, a faint ray of hope shining through from the deep brown pits.
"This is no time for your jokes." The bearded man said, a seed of anger growing in his voice.
"Wasn't joking." the man said, innocently. "Look how helpful he is. And he makes a damn good stew. I'd say he's got more magic in that cauldron than you could brew with all your books and scrolls. He deserves a holiday." Elwin looked from the bearded man to the naked one, then back to the bearded one, a tear gathering in his. He wiped it away and glared at it, almost confused, quite upset.
"Elwin stays. Now, you will go to Feriko or I will put you back on that rope and let the crows have you.” The temper behind the scruff had risen to full anger.
“Why not send one of your crows?” asked the man, turning back to his soup. He spooned a bit of chicken into his mouth. “Such intelligent birds, crows are.” he mocked. He brought his bowl to his lips and began to slurp loudly.
“I have.” answered the bearded man, sharply.
“And?” The boy started slurping loudly.
“And they keep getting lost in the mountains. Would you stop that?” The boy looked up from his bowl, a bead of soup dripping down his chin. He took the bottle and drank deeply from it, reclining in his chair. He rest the bottle on the table and let his hand fall to its base.
“You want me to go up north and see what the dwarves are up to?” he asked.
“I do.” Davican replied.
“And if there’s nothing?”
“If there’s nothing come back.”
“And if there’s something?”
“Whatever the dwarves are up to, I want to know. If it can help us, I want you to obtain it by any means necessary and bring it to me.” The naked man reached across and took a serving of the ram’s meat. He took a bite but only chewed twice before spitting it on the floor.
“You didn’t roast the lamb, did you, Elwin?” he asked.
“No, m’lord.” Elwin answered sheepishly. The naked man pushed the seared carcass off the tray and lifted it to see his reflection on the greasy, silver surface.
“Not bad.” he said, pulling at his cheek with his free hand. He laid the platter back on the wood. “When you want me to leave?” he asked, heading to the hearth.
“A week ago.” The bearded conjurer said firmly. “But it seems you do things in your own time.”
“You left me on the gallows, old man." he said, wiping his lip. "You could have sent your dog to fetch me at any time, but you wanted to punish a dead man." He dunked his bowl in the steaming kettle and returned to his seat.
"A foolish boy." snapped the bearded man. "A mistake I should have rectified long ago." The naked man sat back in his chair, waving the spoon through the broth.
“Those seem to be piling up around here, don't they?" The naked man asked. He took the wine and finished the last of it in one great swig. He put the bottle down and examined his new hand. "You wanna have a catch before I'm off? Maybe throw a ball around for old times sake? Test out the new hand? It feels a bit odd to me.” He knocked the bottle to the floor, where it shattered to tiny, glinting pieces. "A bit hard to control." He held it up to his face for a moment, examining the palm, then the back. He flexed his fingers and clenched his fist.
The bearded man was silent, not looking at him, breathing heavily, judging by the way his chest heaved up and down beneath his fine robe. He curled his fingers tightly around his silver wine goblet. The man brought his bowl to his lips and finished what was left in it in a matter of seconds. He wiped his chin. “Good soup, Elwin.” he said, standing again. He headed for the door before Elwin could answer.
“Where are you going?” asked Davican.
“Need to freshen up.” replied the naked man, caked in blood. “I’ll write you.” he said. He took a hold of the door handle.
“With something useful, I hope.” The bearded man said, his knuckles white against the cup. The boy pulled the door open, revealing one of the skeletal servants.
“Out o’ the way, Remis.” the boy ordered, brushing past him. He passed into the hallway, leaving the door ajar. Remis stood in the frame, holding his candelabra, dripping wax onto the floor.