The sun’s barely peeking over the frozen pines, when Owen Belmont wakes to the sound of screaming.
His eyes flicker open, hands drifting to his shortsword and his whip handle … before he slumps back against the treetrunk with a weary huff. Wails of anguish drift through the chilly dawn mist.
Ugh. Not again. Still here in this godforsaken wilderness. His fingers brush over his weapons: silver-tipped rowan stakes strapped to his thigh: check. Steel shortsword: check. Consecrated leather bullwhip studded with vicious sky-iron barbs: check. Coin pouch, getting lighter every day: check. He uncurls with a groan, wincing from the gnarled tree root digging into his back. Along with the familiar distant ache everywhere else that says he’d gotten the shit beaten out of him but was too blessedly drunk to feel it properly. The taste of bile and shitty mead sours his throat. Yep – there’s a tavern through the dripping trees behind him. A walled town squats on the floodplain ahead, echoing with screams.
Great. More monsters. His favourite. Of course he wouldn’t get a chance to rest. Of course it was just his luck that the stupid shit-stain town ahead would be attacked by Night Creatures. God forbid he could have one night to just get hammered and pass out like any other man after spending a month sober on the road through Wallachia, stuck playing hero because he was the only Belmont left alive to do it and fate had decided he wasn’t getting a night off no matter how much he deserved it.
Leaves rustle overhead; birdshit splatters his shoulder as a woodpigeon settles on a branch, cooing smugly like the feathery bastard it is.
‘What the fuck!’ Owen growls at the grey sky. God doesn’t answer, so he continues, ‘If this is – if this is Purgatory, I was fucking well purified already! I was pissing sacrament! What more d’you fuckin’ want?’ Still silence. ‘I can wait all damn day, y’know!’
Great. Really great. Another miserable day in this shithole. Gresit lies ahead, the last stop between him and starvation. The next town forty bloody miles away. This day’s just getting better and better.
He staggers to his feet and starts walking, every muscle groaning in protest. He’s cold. It’s gloomy. He’s wet through. His muddy cloak is soaked with dew; even his horsehide boots are half-sodden. He’s too shitfaced for mysteries. He’ll trudge along this shitty mud track into town, find breakfast, find another tavern, drink away more of his ever-shrinking family fortune, perhaps find a quiet back room somewhere and pass out again –
Christ alive, lady, will you PLEASE stop screaming.
She does. Thank Christ.
An inhuman screech rends the air; four gaunt winged Night Creatures lope across the floodplain towards the wood. The leader pauses, raises its fanged muzzle to sniff the air then continues on, a bloody arm hanging from its jaws. Charming.
But his stomach twists into itself like gnashing teeth, demanding breakfast, and Owen … well, best not stand around to get more filthy birdshit on him. He spits a bitter chuckle. No one. There’s no one else. No one left.
But there’s still monsters to fight here, and he’ll be damned if the last Belmont freezes to death in a ditch instead.
Crawling up a trickling sewer beside the main gate is even worse. If his (woefully threadbare) luck is holding out, he’ll be able to slip by a dozing guard into town. No mess. No hassle. No need to shank anyone. Instead, emerging from stinking darkness, Owen finds a spear badly levelled at him by some bald scraggly-bearded geezer.
‘Well excuse me,’ Owen grimaces, nodding at the jumbled wreckage choking the entrance. ‘I’d’ve been happy to go in the front, y’know. If it wasn’t barricaded against flying monsters.’ It won’t even be hard to throw a dagger and take out this pathetic excuse of a sentry. But what’s he got to fear, exactly? Getting jabbed with a blunted spear by a doddery old sod?
To his surprise, the guard puts up his weapon, the spearbutt rapping on the flagstones. How disappointing. ‘What brings ye to our town,’ the man grunts, and Owen can’t tell if his dreary flatness is exhaustion or petty sarcasm. ‘Who’re you, stranger?’
And just. Just fuck it. Fuck everything. ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ he snarks back. He’s not sure what he’s expecting to get out of that – anger and maybe a derisive stabbing for his flippant blasphemy …
The man rolls his eyes, shuffles aside and mutters ‘Move along, then.’
Huh. Their defence here really is horseshit. Who’d have thought?
He shivers at a fresh gust of icy wind, pulls his tattered cloak closer around his shoulders. A window creaks open and chamberpot filth splatters into the muck ahead. Terrific. Just another lovely day in Shit Town.
His stomach grumbles again. If he doesn’t need food to live, is that gluttony? But he was never eating so he wouldn’t starve, now was he? You eat because you’re hungry. Fuel in the stove.
It gets worse when he reaches the town square. Festooned above the marketplace, like ghastly festive bunting: a dripping web of slimy pink entrails, steaming under the feeble winter sun. Wails of despair drift from shattered windows, no doubt inconsolable mothers huddled over blood-spattered empty cradles. Half the surrounding tiled roofs have gaping holes like broken teeth where Night Creatures must have crashed through, bloodstains smeared over the crumbling rubble.
Slim chance the inhabitants are still around. Alive, even.
He approaches the nearest market stall, flashes a coin. ‘What’ll one silver get me?’
The stallholder eyes him dubiously over the chicken she’s plucking. ‘Bit of dried goat.’
He nods. ‘I’ll take it. Thanks.’ He waits while she carves off a thin sliver of leathery meat, scanning the grim vista. Sobbing victims rock back and forth under ramshackle lean-tos, crosses clutched to their chests. Some enterprising chump is prodding at the hideous canopy of fly-ridden entrails with a broom. Another hefts a boxful of stinking guts behind him. But most townsfolk trudge listlessly by on the bloodstained cobbles, eyes downcast. Newly orphaned. Newly widowed. Lives torn apart by fang and claw. Drained of all hope.
‘Ain’t seen you before,’ the woman mutters.
He shrugs. ‘Just passing through.’
‘You’ll wanna pass through quicker.’
Well isn’t that ominously vague. ‘Yeah,’ Owen mumbles around a mouthful of goat. He nods at the miserable carnage. ‘Guess you’ve had some trouble here. Any defence effort?’
A headshake. ‘Don’t need it. Got us a tribe of Gypsies in the Old Quarter. Once we’ve done what needs doing, the demons’ll clear out and leave us alone.’ She glances around, leans in close. ‘Know what I think? I think them Gypsies bought this plague down upon us. Ever since we let ’em in, those devilish baby-chompin’ freaks o’ nature come swarming over the walls every sundown.’
‘How many nights now?’
‘The demons? Only four.’
‘Only.’ He gazes around at the devastation. ‘Right.’
She settles back with a contented grunt. ‘The bishop’ll fix things. If those Gypsies just do as he says when he tells ’em, then this mess will all get sorted out. Else he’ll burn ’em, just like he burned that witch.’
Owen bites back a groan of frustration. Of course. Of course they’d find scapegoats. He’d seen it play out already, he knows the seething desperation, knows how fast people switch allegiances when nothing’s worked yet. Another goddamn lynching, when all other rational options are long burnt out.
‘When was that?’
‘Five nights back.’
‘… Right.’ He straightens up because Belmonts don’t slouch, nods at her. ‘Thanks for breakfast.’ And then he says what he shouldn’t, because it’s not like there’s ever consequences for running his idiot mouth off: ‘You know it’s not just Gresit getting attacked, right?’
‘Lot of places have Gypsies,’ she points out. ‘Lot of places let Gypsies through.’
Lots of places don’t feel the need to throw innocent women on bonfires either, but there you are. ‘Where’s he now?’
‘The bishop? Working. Praying for us.’ She nods towards the church spire above the rooftops a few streets away.
‘You here for the bishop, then?’ a passing man mutters, and it’s not at all friendly, but neither is there the energy of crackling menace behind it.
‘Want a few words with him, yeah.’ Owen turns to the newcomer. ‘Listen, before sunset, gather all the pitchforks and pikes you got.’ And oh lord, he should not have said that judging how the man’s eyes gleam hungrily. ‘No. Forget all that. We’re not having a pogrom. Not the Gypsies. For the Night Horde, all right? Those’ll have to be fought off tonight but I’ll help with that. But there needs to be holy water, as much as possible.’ Hopefully there’s some junior cleric around here who can still bless the stuff. ‘Could you pass that along? Get someone on it?’
The man frowns. ‘I … I dunno if the priests will even listen to me. They’re saying …’
‘I know what they’re saying. It won’t happen. No lynchings, understand?’ Owen claps him on the shoulder, says in his most confident voice, ‘Anyone who refuses to help, they couldn’t even bless water if they wanted. Try the deacons until you find one who will. And start gathering salt. All right?’
Other bystanders are gathering around. ‘But what if the bishop says no?’ someone pipes up.
‘Then … some bloodsucking demon rips him apart tonight, I guess?’ God, it’s like herding sheep here. ‘Doesn’t change a damn thing. This kind of shit isn’t stopped with human sacrifice.’
‘Didn’t you say you could help?’ another voice demands of him.
‘They won’t be here tonight if we kill all the Gypsies!’ someone else argues.
‘But … if we kill the Gypsies and the demons come anyway –’
‘They’ll come,’ Owen adds sourly.
‘– we’ll go to God with their blood on our hands!’
Is that a message? The last thing he did pissed God off this much? He’s pretty sure his last crime was trashing a tavern defending his family name, and if God’s going to take issue with that, well … screw him. ‘Better to die with demon blood on your hands,’ he mutters to the world at large, even if it’s literally his own blood half the damn time. ‘Look. I’ve got things to do. I’ll be back before sundown. Anyone who wants to live, gather out in the open square. Hellfire’s far worse in enclosed spaces – don’t hide indoors.’ And then he says, like a complete idiot, ‘It’ll be okay. I’ll be right here with you. I know how to handle this.’
Turns out, this doesn’t just make desperate townsfolk leave you alone and a dozen end up trailing after you, like whiny goslings. ‘Seriously, piss off!’ he shouts, and they all cower back fearfully. ‘Believe me or not, I don’t have time for this horseshit! Leave me alone! See you later.’
The gloomy houses tower overhead as he treks through the narrow alleyway. Church just ahead, right? Easy enough.
Three figures round the corner and pass him by; two priests – sombre black knee-length robes, crimson belt sashes, white collars, surly expressions – roughly manhandling a third. An old man clad in a mishmash of ragged clothing meekly lets them shove him along. Although … Owen slows and glances back. Judging from their hulking builds and hatchet faces, these two look far less doddery old churchmen and more likely recent escapees from the local lock-up. The three halt in the shadow of the alleyway.
‘I warned you,’ growls the burlier priest. ‘Can’t say I didn’t warn you.’ He draws a metal cross-shaped stave from his tunic and slaps it into his meaty palm, scowling.
The elderly man just spreads his arms, smiling. ‘But you didn’t listen to me, sir.’
The stave jabs into his chest, forcing him backward. ‘Are you talking back to me?’
He brushes the stave aside with a weary sigh. ‘No, I’m merely talking to you. Anyone can see that we Romani are not responsible for what horrors befall this place.’ His gaze is mild and unafraid, even as the thugs circle him like prowling wolves.
Owen’s jaw tightens. He clenches his fists. ‘No, just keep walking …’ he mutters. ‘You’re leaving, okay? You’re done saving people. Caring’s for morons. You’re not getting involved.’
‘So now I’m stupid, eh?’ Burly gets in the elder’s face, seething. ‘I work within the light of God Himself, but you can see things I can’t? You sorcerers dancing around fires with yer potions and yer … black magic?’
The elder chuckles. ‘There’s no magic, sir. We are here to help. That’s all.’
Burly seizes his collar and drags him nose-to-nose. ‘Gypsies don’t help. Gypsies are tainted! You attract evil, and you an’ yours were told to be out of Gresit by sunset yesterday!’ He clamps the elder’s chin, forces his eyes upward. ‘See? The sun is up! Take a good long look at the sunrise, old man.’
Owen exhales. Don’t get involved … walk on … ignore them … stay out of it …
‘Will killing an old man make you less scared of the dark?’ asks the elder, his voice tinged with amusement. Pretty ballsy of him.
‘I dunno,’ purrs the priest. He smirks to his bald, leaner companion. ‘P’raps it’ll just make me feel better …’ He raises the stave.
Don’t be a hero, don’t be a bloody hero …
Aw, fuck it.
And Owen strikes.
Like an uncoiled viper, his whip hisses through the air. A sickening crack and the priest’s stave clatters onto the cobbles.
Followed, moments later, by the thug’s severed forefinger.
Burly crumples to his knees, nursing his mangled hand as blood pulses over his wrist. ‘You bastard!’ he howls.
Owen grimaces. ‘Aw, hell. Sorry. I was only trying to snatch the stave out of your hand – how’s your finger?’
‘What fuckin’ finger!?‘
Owen’s smirk widens. ‘That’s no way for a man of the cloth to talk. Best go get that looked at, eh?’
‘Kill the bastard!’ Burly snarls. Skinny hesitates, wide-eyed.
‘Look, I don’t like priests,’ Owen sighs, ‘I mean I really, really don’t like priests. So leave now, and we’ll say no more about this, hm? No hard feelings?’
‘Kill him now!’ Burly roars.
‘Last warning – this’ll get nasty.’
Skinny’s face hardens. He drops into a fighter’s crouch and snarls, brandishing a wicked stiletto.
Owen’s eyes narrow, warrior blood bubbling with glee. ‘Ooh, now that’s a funny thing for a priest to carry. That’s a thief’s knife.’
Skinny twirls his blade and darts forward, eyes hungry for blood.
‘Seriously?’ Owen teases. ‘I might be a little rusty, but I’m stone-cold sober today. Someone’ll get hurt.’
He dodges Skinny’s first pathetic lunge, snares his knife-wrist with the whip and yanks him aside. ‘Now stop it, I just –’ he dodges another slash. ‘Cool it, mate.’ He sidesteps a wild overreach, dancing around the flailing idiot. ‘C’mon, man, just calm down.’ The blade hisses past his face. He slams a knee into Skinny’s balls, crunches an elbow into his jaw and lets him blunder away, spitting blood. And yes, all his buried ancestors must be rolling in their graves and yelling ‘Just knife this fucker already!’ and he’s so unforgivably sloppy as to get his tunic ripped by a lucky backslash, his forearm grazed by a third vicious lunge. He’s trying, all right? He’s doing his best. Not everything needs to end in a pile of bodies all the freaking time. Whether dodging the first attack or flurry of attacks, deflecting punches, letting people smack him around and blow off some steam – always better to give folks a chance to tire themselves out and just stop fucking escalating things.
But there’s no convincing Skinny. He whirls around and attacks again, knife hissing. And suddenly Owen’s had enough. Plan Resolve Shit Peacefully So These Chumps Stand Down And Bugger Off is already dead on arrival. He’s tried talking them both down, already gave this vicious sadist more than enough chances to stop trying to stab him to death, and this guy just. Won’t. Take it. He’ll get murdered by his own viciousness later, probably.
The crack of the whiplash is a joyous sound and Skinny staggers away, moaning as he cradles his wrecked face. A jellied crater of gore where his left eye once was. Owen nods grimly. Yep, God, that’s what it takes. Not just him being bloody-minded.
He’s relatively certain neither of these arseholes are quite up for knifing him in the back just yet and, well, so what if they try, right? Is God going to be all, you wrathful piece of shit, striking a man of the cloth while he was striking down an elderly unarmed pacifist, now you’re in Hell and every time you do that you get stabbed to death? Because sod anybody who thinks that’ll change his mind. He’s slain plenty of monsters, he can find time to flay some bastard’s hand halfway off too.
‘Pick him up,’ he growls at Burly, coiling up his whip. ‘Take him back to your church. Don’t bother this man, or his people, again.’
He watches them limp off down the alley, leaning on each other. Probably fetching backup, but that’s a problem for future-Owen. Present-Owen has to deal with the victim, who’s finally raised his head and smiled.
‘You have my thanks, stranger,’ the elder murmurs, bowing. ‘I hope you don’t bear the consequences. Although … must you have used such wanton violence?’
Owen stares. He knew the Gypsies were pacifists, but … ‘Elder, they were going to kill you in a dark alleyway.’
The elder hums. ‘And I am thankful to you, but I fear it was unnecessary. Still, might I know my saviour’s name?’
He eyes the now-glaring midday sun and thumps the crest on his tunic. ‘Owen. Owen Belmont.’
The elder’s eyes widen. ‘A Belmont! Your family is renowned, sir.’
If by renowned you mean cursed, excommunicated and burned out of house and home for fear of dark magic, then yeah. We’re a thing. ‘We know a lot about rare beasts,’ Owen settles on.
‘About how to kill them,’ the elder frowns.
Fine. Be an unappreciative old fart, why don’t you. ‘About how to kill things that kill people,’ he grudgingly agrees. ‘Which Night Creatures do, what with being demons and all.’ And isn’t that the understatement of several centuries. ‘Monsters don’t get written into the family bestiary because they were fangy creatures we felt would make good wall trophies. They’re just another slithery bastard that’s fast, vicious, stupidly durable and very good at killing people. My family didn’t hunt stuff for the fun of it. We go after trouble. Always have.’
‘And sometimes trouble finds you?’ The elder chuckles, eyes twinkling. ‘God must really hate you.’
Owen snorts. ‘Don’t sweat it. Everyone hates me. Trouble finds us Belmonts just fine.’
The elder gazes down the alley, where the priests disappeared. ‘But the church isn’t trouble.’
Owen rolls his eyes. Whatever you say, pal.
The elder bows his head graciously. ‘Thank you for your kindness. And, I think, your restraint.’
Owen nods back, already scanning the shadows for danger. ‘You’re welcome, Elder. Might I accompany you to your wagon train?’
The elder shakes his head. ‘No need. We’ve settled here in Gresit. No caravans.’ Because of course the idiot’s got a suicidal death wish, helping townsfolk who want him dead. Of course. Then he shrugs. ‘But I would be most glad of your company to our lodging. The streets aren’t safe nowadays.’
In other news, water is wet. Owen forces his face into his best inoffensive grin – and it is pretty damn good, seven times out of ten he got to go back to undisturbed drinking – and nods down the street. ‘So, getting out of here, old timer?’
The elder considers him evenly, then smiles. ‘Very well … Lead on, Owen Belmont.’
To be continued…
© 2021 | Tom Burton
Pocketful of Time is now available from Amazon Kindle