Stealing from the Dead (Part 2)

The second half of the mini-story I posted the other day.


Leo had picked his first fight with the Neuenheim city guard at the ripe old age of fourteen. The day the boy had partaken in his first brawl had been the same day he learned to stand his ground, to fight for his beliefs, and most importantly, to flee shamelessly and duck into the nearest sewer when the situation demanded. It was one of the reasons he had lived so long.

In those days he had taken on the best of the city’s overpaid and pot-bellied guard with whatever came to hand: planks of wood, sacks of vegetables, and on one unforgettable occasion, an unfortunate pub-goer’s wooden leg. These days, he went out rather better prepared. He had – by means best not discussed in this telling of the story – procured himself a lightweight falchion, etched with ancient runes that a drunken elf had once told him meant ‘I am my own worst enemy’. Leo liked to think it was just the mead talking. For his off-hand, he preferred an oversized cleaver to the more traditional and safer shield – it was truncated, but trusty, as he was wont to say to anyone who would listen.

So, as he landed amongst the rotting dead with their stiff-legged gait and terrible dress-sense, Leo had already drawn both weapons, with the third stashed safely between his teeth for emergencies. He had once been in a fight with a barb-tailed scrub beast, and the act of bending down to pull out his boot-knife had led to a month of sitting on soft cushions and avoiding spicy food. Leo rarely made the same mistake twice.

Unfortunately, the animated corpses who faced him now were unlikely to use similar tactics; in fact, Leo doubted that they were able to form a cogent group, never mind attack from behind when his guard was down. They all seemed to be functioning individually, rather than working together to overcome their lone enemy. However, since this meant that they all attacked at once, it didn’t make a lot of difference – except that they were all obviously keen to get at this delicious morsel for themselves.

Aiming a few head-height slashes at the nearest, Leo noticed that although not about to win any prizes for intelligence, their survival instinct was above reproach, and the sluggish pace they normally assumed was replaced by frightening speed when threatened with dismemberment.

Leo retreated to a boulder and shortly hit upon a dangerous tactic. He sheathed both his weapons, and keeping only his dagger in one white-knuckled hand, dropped to the ground close to the smallest gathering of zombies. Instantly, the foremost closed with him, reaching its tattered arms towards him as though begging for a hug. Leo let it touch him, and immediately cried out.

“Oh no, it’s got me. Argh. Oh no. It’s eating me alive.”

He glanced about to see if his acting was paying off. It was apparently not yet time for him to give up his day-job in thievery. He let out an impatient breath and added in a very clear and obvious tone, “It’s going to eat me all up and there’ll be none left for anyone else.”

Some of the closer corpses tilted their heads as though trying to understand his words.

“It’s such a greedy zombie,” he added pointedly. “It’s going to have me all to itself!”

The creature’s lipless jaws were inching nearer to his throat, and a light sheen of sweat broke out on his brow. He had had a few close calls over the years, the more memorable of which generally involved irate fathers with pitchforks or cavalry swords, or curmudgeonly misers in nightcaps who had squandered at least part of their fortunes on demonic treasure-guards. The horde shuffled closer, their combined stench filling his nostrils and lungs with dust and decay. Leo wondered whether this might be a good time to panic, and tried to remember if the gods owed him any favours.

If anything, it was the other way around.

Just as he was about to give up on this tactic and sink his dagger into his assailant’s one remaining non-desiccated eye, the creature was yanked away from him with such force that its fingers, along with its wrist and a good portion of its forearm, came detached from the rest of it with a dry ‘pop’.

Leo held his breath as the heavier-boned zombie who had intervened leaned towards its friend and yelled an inarticulate and rather lacklustre reprimand into his face. He then proceeded to wrench the hand from where it still gripped Leo’s jerkin and slap its owner about the head with it. Leo’s eyes widened and a snigger sneaked out unbidden. At that, the walking corpses remembered him. Leo swallowed audibly. The distraction had earned him but a little space and a smaller amount of time. While his rotten enemies were collecting their scattered wits (and limbs), he turned tail and sprinted for the entryway, marked by a patch of amber light that was reddening as the sun rose above.

He had entered the cavern quite easily, once he had found the right lichen-covered rock in a certain flowerbed in a certain garden, and it had been a matter of little effort to drop the twelve or so feet to the sandy floor below. But Leo had been in such a rush to bathe in the glow of the fabled hoard beneath that he had not considered how he would escape.

“Sometimes violence is the answer,” muttered the youth, and with that, he swung around with a wild grin and set to work.

Presently, the mound of bodies was high enough for him to stand on and reach the first foothold below the hole. From there he scrambled upwards, skinning his knees in a way that he had not done since he first played pickpocket with the clergy at the age of seven; tearing the silk shirt that had been a gift from a girl in a nearby port, who was even now convinced that he was dying of a rare nail disorder; and dislodging his cleaver, which fell and embedded itself in the skull of one last would-be diner – trusty to the last.

However, his plan was working against him, for where he climbed, the dead could follow with little trouble, and as he clawed his way out from the grassy hole into the fresh dawn air, one of his pursuers grabbed at an ankle. If anyone could have seen him, dusty, grimy, splattered with liquids of varying putrid shades, torn of shirt, mussed of hair, they would have wondered what he was doing in this part of the Mayor’s flower garden at six in the morning.

Leo’s eyes widened and he stuck his tongue out in concentration as he aimed blind kicks at the corpses that were trying to crawl up his legs.

“I – am not – your dinner!” he yelled, punctuating his declaration with several desperate kicks.

Eventually, the young man struggled free and flopped his way out of the hole onto the verdant sward like a beached whale running ashore. He drew his falchion awkwardly from his position on the floor, ready lest the zombies make another appearance, but it seemed the sun deterred them, and he resealed the hole thankfully.

Lying back on the posy-speckled lawn, he laughed aloud in relief and tugged out the item for which he had almost paid too high a price. He grinned as the sunlight glinted from its flawless surfaces and refracted in the facets of the rubies.

Abruptly, his face fell.

“No-one’s ever going to believe this,” he complained aloud, his eyes creasing shrewdly even as he did so. “Until I add some embellishments, that is!” He tossed the chalice into the air and watched it turn and glint in the sunlight before catching it deftly and secreting it in about his person. He stood, brushed the dust fastidiously from his clothes and smoothed his hair into a more desperado style.

Licking his finger, he raised it to the wind, glanced at the sun to get his bearings and set off for his camp with a spring in his step and a jaunty tune on his lips.

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