The boy darts through the busy marketplace, giggling as he swerves around scowling vendors, hurdles vegetable crates and leaves basket stacks wobbling precariously in his wake. A merchant curses and shies away, almost dropping his potted plant. A mother rears back, accidentally jostles the baby cradled in her arms and groans as he starts wailing. But the lad dashes on heedlessly, his red velvet shoes pattering through the mud.
Only to skid to a halt before the Magistrate, who glares down with hands on hips. ‘No running! I’ve told you long enough I won’t have children charging about like wild dogs through my town. And I’ve told you in particular more than twenty times, haven’t I?’ He wags a stern finger. ‘Haven’t I, boy?’
Behind, Owen winces in sympathy as the shamefaced lad pouts at his shoes, shoulders slumped. Andrei sighs and crouches eye-to-eye with the miserable boy. He nods towards the food stalls, the packed trays of fruit. ‘And you’re always here first thing every morning because you like the freshest apples, don’t you?’ He smiles as the boy nods eagerly. ‘Mmm. I thought so.’
He leans in with a stage whisper. ‘Want to know a special secret?’ He points towards the trees. ‘If you go into the woods through the back field, follow the path down the left fork and carry on to the big tree you all say looks like an angry face, hm? Then you cross over the stream, past the point your parents say you shouldn’t go, right?’ He smiles. ‘Luckily I know there’s an apple tree in that next clearing. Biggest, juiciest apples you’ve ever seen!’ He places a hand over his heart. ‘Well, it’s my apple tree, and nobody’s allowed to go there. So,’ he ruffles the lad’s messy hair, ‘if you promise not to tell your parents where you’re going … go get yourself three apples. Off you go, then!’
The boy beams and scampers off, Andrei smiling after him. ‘And no more running!’ He sighs, shakes his head fondly, then catches Owen grinning and frowns. ‘What?’
‘Aww,’ Owen teases. ‘See? You do care.’
‘I do not, Belmont.’ He smoothes down his lapels, blushing. ‘I’m just … keeping an eye on him, that’s all. Sending him on a nonsense errand gets him out from under people’s feet. Little ankle-biters.’
‘Yeah, yeah. Ya big softie.’
‘Stop.’ He snorts a laugh. ‘Suppose we were all young once.’
‘Let him have his fun,’ Owen smiles. ‘They’re just cheeky kids.’
‘Indeed,’ Andrei admits, then his expression turns grave. ‘And kids always grow up into men. The boy who steals toys from his playmates will grow into the thief who robs at knifepoint. The child clumsily dashing around without a care for anyone else’s safety will one day cause an accident that hurts more lives than it should. I’m protecting these people, Belmont. Scolding their kids today will safeguard their tomorrow. Cruel to be kind. Don’t you see that?’
Owen sighs skywards. ‘Whatever you say, pal.’
Andrei ushers him inside his home, a wooden lodge that oozes comfort. Taking a seat, Owen gazes around while Andrei pours tea; wealth and luxury wrapped in deep shadows. Varnished oak-panelled walls gleam golden-brown. A large table of rich mahogany scattered with papers before him. An ornate brass key on a plate.
Andrei passes over a steaming mug. ‘I know the monks make you wary too. I need to know what’s going on in the priory. I run the town, but my power stops at the priory’s door.’
Owen leans back in his chair, folding his arms. ‘The place is obviously crawling with lunatics – what else d’you need to know?’
Andrei sips his tea. ‘Reikstadt was hit by a pack of Night Creatures only a fortnight ago.’ His face darkens. ‘The monks barricaded themselves safely in the priory, while outside townsfolk were chased down and butchered in the pouring rain. But I pride myself on a carefully organised town. My men-at-arms wiped their weapons with salt and shit.’
Owen grunts approvingly. Not just a lazy boyar townsman sat on his arse collecting taxes, then. ‘Salt on the blades, very good. Shit to make the wounds sicken and fester. Smart. That’s old army tactics.’
‘From ancient empires, yes. The Church still labels them heathens, but … the Greeks, Romans and Persians truly were centuries ahead of their time.’ Andrei reclines back in his chair. ‘Reikstadt has always defended herself. That’s why we’re far more than just a wide spot in the road, Belmont.’ He sighed. ‘We surrounded them with pikes and longswords. My men slew all but one of the Night Creatures, which fled. We pursued. It ended up crashing right through the priory roof. For a moment there was horrified screaming inside, then … silence. It was quiet for so long, I couldn’t imagine even a single monster could’ve killed everyone inside so quickly. But it hadn’t killed them. No. It was talking to them. Lightening cracked down, all the priory windows glowed from within. And the rain just … stopped.’ He steeples his fingers over his belly. ‘Soon after the monks staggered out, holding blackened chunks of flesh.’
Owen’s stomach churns with unease.
‘I’ve no idea if those pieces added up to the entire beast.’ Andrei shrugs. ‘They couldn’t stop crying. They all looked, well … broken. None of them could speak a word.’ He gazes into his mug. ‘They just dropped the remains outside and then crept back indoors.’ He sighs heavily, kneading his temples. ‘Next morning, it began. The townsfolk wanted to give thanks for God’s mercy, but Sala wouldn’t allow them into the priory’s hall. A few days later the first stranger arrived, looking for the priory. A priest covered in blood. Dagger in his hand. Couldn’t stop shaking. Babbling nonstop. Pissed himself in the marketplace.’ Andrei chews his lip, brow furrowed. ‘The monks took him in. Been happening every few days since. Swelling their numbers. I have to know what happened up there.’ His eyes narrow, fist clenched. ‘I have a community to look after here. Innocent civilians. I need to know why the priory in my town is attracting damaged men. I need to know if they’re planning something dangerous.’
Owen gazes back, intrigued. And worried. Any broken place drawing in such threatening strangers, after an ordeal like that? Always some kind of dark magic brewing somewhere.
Andrei’s eyes drift to the key by his hand. He reaches over and touches it, then sighs. ‘When you arrived last night, I took you for a simple adventurer. Someone who might take a chance for a fair payment.’ He smiles over the rim of his mug. ‘But you are a Belmont, nonetheless. Your family were heroes to this country, and its people. Watchmen, protectors, guardians of Wallachia and shields against the night. So many legendary stories! Even monsters have their own nightmares.’ He lowers his tea. ‘I believe you’ll help me because these are dangerous times. And it’s the right thing to do, and because, well … I think this is what you like, deep down. It’s in your blood. Because you’re a kind, brave warrior who’ll always help those in need.’
Owen rubs the back of his neck, blushing. ‘All right, all right! Not need to make a whole song and dance about it. Jeez!’
Andrei chuckles. ‘Sorry. That’s why I said I think you like this.’ His jaw tightens. ‘Also, I don’t normally flatter people since it’s so much easier to just have them flogged in the square until they do as I damn well tell them!’
Owen smirks with amusement as Andrei continues: ‘But those fanatics are armed. Their numbers now match my militia at full strength. All of the town and their capabilities are well-known to the prior. But you … have the advantage of anonymity.’ A long pause. Then he smiles, eyes twinkling. ‘Plus I’ll pay your rent while you’re staying at Maria’s. If that helps.’
A heavy silence … then Owen nods. ‘Okay. Where do we start?’
Just like being a burglar again, Owen thinks as he creeps through the gloomy alleyway, Sergeant Stefan shadowing him. Already six carved symbols found on as many households. This isn’t some random act of petty vandalism. Looks deliberate. Widespread. Planned. Elsewhere the sergeant’s men are busy combing the town in pairs, hunting for more occult symbols hidden away. Stefan’s a squat, no-nonsense hardbitten veteran who sneaks along behind, tracking their shared quarry with grimfaced resolve. Decent backup in a fistfight, Owen grudgingly admits.
Low chanting makes him melt back into the bushes, pulling Stefan with him. Goddamn, they’re like roaches, he thinks as yet another hooded monk creeps past muttering gibberish. They watch the monk glance around furtively, draw a knife and beeline for the nearest homestead’s unmarked wall.
Only to find that lurking in the bushes are far more dangerous surprises than hair-snagging twigs. Together they drag him back under cover; he’s a wiry young lad but a dirty fighter (Owen will have to stitch up his left forearm sometime and Stefan’s hand has brand new teethmarks, thanks asshole) who’s plenty wriggly until Stefan smothers him in a headlock and grimly chokes him out while Owen clamps his mouth shut. He struggles. Not for long.
More shuffling footsteps. Two more thickset monks round the corner; one’s a bearded cove with his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, the other’s paler and bald, his sunken cheeks crisscrossed with lurid blade scars. Their eyes flickering toward the rustling bushes.
‘Windy today,’ Ponytail grunts.
Crap. Will you go to sleep, pal.
A band of squabbling crows overhead distracts the pair’s gaze. Thank fuck. Finally their captive goes limp, and Stefan sets about binding and gagging him while Owen watches the brawny newcomers. First they notice the dropped knife, then the monk’s sandals (not too hard, given that Owen deliberately left them out in a sunny patch) and start competing on whose curses sound worse; Romanian or Bulgarian.
Owen smirks. Amateurs. If these choirboys really wanted to get down and filthy, they’d learn Greek.
The two monks argue between themselves before Scarface scoops up his brother’s knife and stomps onward. Leaving their prey senseless in the dirt, Owen and Stefan follow them like silent moon-wraiths.
Owen peers around the next corner. His wolfish inner voice growls in triumph.
Got ’em. Both hulking monks are stooped close to the planked wall of Maria’s inn. Out of view of the windowpanes. Scarface carves a jagged rune deep into the woodwork with his knife while Ponytail stands guard, eyeing the shadows.
‘What’s going on?’
Maria appears at Owen’s side like a ghost. He doesn’t jump, honest, because manly fearless monster hunters do not jump and squeak like a pansy. ‘Hey, friendo,’ she smirks, and Owen almost glances around, but she’s beaming right at him.
‘What’re you both gawpin’ at?’ Maria peers past him at the two loitering thugs, and her glare deepens. She mashes a crude brass knuckleduster into her open palm. ‘Saw ’em skulking around from my upstairs window. Want me to sort ’em out?’
Stefan shakes his head, aghast. ‘We need to question them! Magistrate’s orders!’
Crikey, but Maria’s scowl is fierce. ‘We only need one breathing for that!’ she hisses.
‘Keep your voice down, miss!’ Stefan mutters. ‘We don’t want the alarm raised up at the priory.’
Owen interposes himself. ‘Let me handle it.’ He rolls his shoulders. Clenches his fists. ‘I’ve been feeling bloody useless ever since all this turned in dark magic and weird graffiti.’
Maria pokes his arm. ‘Don’t think I’m some helpless damsel always needing men doing me own legwork!’
‘Of course not!’ The monk’s knife scratches as Owen continues in a hushed undertone: ‘But if I mess with them, there’s no blowback on either of you. I’m a drifter, remember? They don’t know who I’m staying with, so they can’t retaliate. Let’s keep it that way.’
Maria sighs. ‘All right, but …’ She squeezes his shoulder, eyes creased with concern. ‘You sure?’
He smirks back. ‘Yeah.’ He pads out of the shadows toward the monks, cracking his knuckles with relish. ‘I’m a simple man with simple pleasures …’
‘Be careful,’ Maria whispers.
‘Don’t kill ’em,’ Stefan mutters.
Ugh. If you say so. Owen rolls his eyes. ‘Sure thing, Mum.’
Owen’s barely five yards away when Ponytail finally turns and notices him. His eyes widen, mouth parting to yell a warning –
Too late. Owen hop-skips forward and crashes a fist deep into his throat. Ponytail crumples to his knees, coughing hoarsely and clutching his bruised windpipe.
And yippee, it’s on. Scarface rounds upon Owen, ripping the knife free from the woodwork and closing in. Owen darts back with raised fists, dancing on his toes like a nimble fox pouncing away from a slow lumbering bear. Scarface swarms in, dark-eyed and vicious, but Owen dodges slash after wild slash with a shit-eating smirk, taunting him onward. ‘C’monnn, that the best you got?’ The knife hisses past his face. He grabs Scarface’s blade arm and yanks him forward off-balance, crunches a knee into his balls then kicks his legs from under him.
Ponytail finally staggers upright with a grunt, ripping off his habit’s long sleeves to reveal thick muscled arms. Arms that certainly haven’t gotten that way from flipping Bible pages all day long. A brutish primeval leg-breaker, like a bareknuckle prizefighter who’s survived twenty hard years deep down in slimy catacombs among the rats and cockroaches.
Finally, purrs Owen’s lizard brain, a challenge!
Ponytail snorts like an enraged bull and pounds his fists together. Growling with bloodlust he charges –
Owen flings off his travelling cloak and sweeps it over Ponytail’s head in one fluid motion, like a bullfighter’s cape, ensnaring him, blinding him. As Scarface lurches to his feet, Owen swings Ponytail around and heaves him into his partner. Momentum’s a bitch. They both go sprawling, tangled together.
Owen’s niggling inner voice scolds him: ‘Knock them out already! End the fight here and now!’ But he savours that primal urge to step back and let these idiots get up again for another beatdown, prolong the fight even further, let them tire themselves out. Brawling’s such fun.
After all, what’s a little harmless fun clobbering some goons?
Both dazed monks struggle upright, glaring. Scarface brandishes his knife.
‘Ooh, I love meeting a professional killer!’ Owen smirks gleefully, dancing from foot to foot. ‘And that reverse grip? Gives it away every time!’ Both snarling monks blunder in but Owen’s far too agile for them. He bobs and weaves playfully between them, avoiding their clumsy flailing haymakers. Ducks a feral left from Ponytail. Dodges each vicious swipe of Scarface’s blade. Sends them reeling away with pinpoint blows.
The knife slices past his torso. Barely missing him. Too close for comfort. His jaw clenches.
Okay, then. Playtime’s over.
Owen darts inside Scarface’s reach, doubles him over with a punishing barrage of gut punches, clamps his skull and smashes him headfirst into the wall. As Scarface slumps unconscious to the floor Ponytail bellows and lunges. Owen sidesteps his wild charge and buries an elbow deep into the brawler’s belly. Ribs crack. Ponytail folds forward and Owen wrenches him down, slamming his knee full into the falling monk’s face.
Game over. Both monks lie splayed in the dirt. Ponytail is limp and unmoving, his shattered face a mask of blood. Unbreathing, too. Owen winces and crouches close. No reedy pulse jumping beneath his fingertips. Damn. Ah well. One less asshole to worry about in future.
Scarface groans and shifts feebly. Owen smirks. One still alive for questioning. Mission accomplished. He plants a boot on Scarface’s back, grinning as the others join him. Stefan is wiping his blade clean.
Owen raises an eyebrow. ‘What happened to our other monk over there?’
Stefan sheathes his knife, shrugging. ‘What other monk?’ He gazes blankly down at Owen’s prisoner. ‘Just another nameless nobody to bury, yeah? Don’t need all that baggage. Took care of it. Pushing up daisies now.’
Huh. No loose ends. Harsh but fair. Owen’s starting to grudgingly admire this guy. ‘Mind if I borrow that?’
Stefan hands over his knife, watching as Owen leans in and starts levering out the defaced wooden slat. A firm jerk and the board finally pops loose, Owen examining the carving. Yep, same creepy symbol that’s gouged into the gatepost. Weird.
He passes it to Stefan. ‘Well, that’s one house left unmarked, for sure. C’mon, matey! Up you get.’ He hauls Scarface upright, draping one beefy arm over his shoulder and pulling the monk’s hood up over his face. They stagger off together as Stefan supports his far side, grimacing under Scarface’s deadweight. The idiot groans and tries to wriggle free, until Owen pinches a nerve cluster deep behind his ear. Hurts like a bitch, and it makes the monk squeak and sag limply between them like a dozy drunk. Win-win.
He is obnoxiously heavy.
‘What’re we even doing here, Owen?’ Maria hisses as she trails behind them, eyes darting around.
He winks back. ‘Taking this chump to Andrei’s.’
Maria frowns. ‘And then what?’
Ah. Perhaps Maria’s worried about the other monks lurking up the hill, soon due their just desserts. Bless their damned little hearts. He grins roguishly. ‘I won’t do anything you disapprove of, Maria.’
She huffs and rolls her eyes. ‘You mean, other than so far.’
That scowl of hers: so great. Stefan chuckles – actually chuckles! – and now Maria is in full-on Stern Mum Mode. It’s hilarious.
© 2021 | Tom Burton