Sunday, September 13, 2015

8: Transfixed

Greta’s Bluff topped the largest of the nearby hills and offered an impressive panorama of the town spread out below.  When Will came shooting over the rise, however, the scenery on the bluff itself was of more immediate interest.
The first thing Will saw was a bonfire, with some sort of animal’s ribs roasting on a spit above it, dripping juices and wafting the sweet aroma of roasting pork.  It seemed to him initially that the fire was both too large to be suitable for a scouting party and unwise from a stealth perspective.  But then he saw the rest of the scene, and forgot the fire entirely.
Beside the fire, three men were rotating around one another in a careful circle.  At the center was a wild-eyed man in hardened leather; his matted beard reaching almost to his waist.  His bared arms were knotty with muscle and gnarled as walnut branches; he bore two iron-headed hatchets, one in each hand.  In front of him stood a pale, scrawny youth clad in loose, untanned hides, brandishing a crude spear, its point fire-hardened but lacking a barb; he gripped the spear awkwardly, as if he’d never held one before.  Still, his weapon gave him the reach advantage, and allowed him to keep the madman’s frantic hacks at bay.  The third man, older and with a bald spot topping his crudely-shorn scalp, bore a spear of his own and wore hides similar to the boy’s.  He, however, had an air of experience, and was attempting to move around behind the axeman for a killing thrust.  Every time the wild-haired figure turned, the boy opposite countered, attempting to rotate in behind him to strike a blow.
It was instantly apparent that the man in the middle―alone and with superior, iron-forged equipment―was Haven’s representative, the “Grigori” to whom Ben had referred.  Yet the dance in which the three men were engaged did not have the look of longevity about it.  Whatever edge the man in the middle might have in quality of equipment and training, the weight of numbers would ultimately prove fatal.  Yet what could Will do?
Locked into the complicated rhythms of the dance, attentive to their footwork and to their partners, none of the three men appeared to have noticed Will’s heartlight.   He looked again at the younger of the two circling men―at his unsure grip on the spear, his awkward posture, at the way his eyes shifted wildly in response to each of the central warrior’s gradually slowing strokes.
And Will acted.  He arced upwards behind the balding man, into the younger one’s field of vision.  As the spearman’s gaze darted up towards Will, his eyes widened in surprise; Will responded by  swooping straight down towards his face, his heartlight glowing brightly.  Instinctively, the boy brought up the spear to protect himself; Will dove in, passing directly through his body.  Emerging out the other side of the man, Will heard a thick, wet crunching noise behind him.
Will turned around and saw the boy slump to his knees.  The hatchet in Grigori’s right hand lay buried in the center of his skull.  Grigori, however, was unable to wrench it free―and as he tried, the third man charged in from the rear.  There was a second, equally sickening noise―and the point of the man’s spear emerged from the center of Grigori’s abdomen.
Instantly, Grigori’s legs turned to rubber, and he toppled forward.  He lost his grip on the axe with which he’d killed the boy; his hand went to his gut, grasping the weapon upon which he’d been impaled.  His left hand still held the second hatchet.  The boy in front of Grigori toppled into the dust; the two remaining figures arranged in a tableau, Grigori kneeling, stuck by the spear.  Will saw the balding spearman exhale slowly, the tension draining from his face, the muscles of his arms slackening.  He saw Grigori slowly, deliberately, release the second axe, his second hand joining his first, gripping the spear’s point.  He sucked in a long, slow, shuddering breath. 
What happened next, Will would never be able to forget, no matter how hard he tried.
Grasping the spear with both hands, Grigori yanked it forward, jerking at least two feet of the shaft straight through his own body.  The balding man, caught by surprise, was pulled off-balance; as he stumbled forward, Grigori’s left hand found the hatchet in the dust beside him.  He swung his arm in an arc that twisted his entire torso around; at the edge of the arc, the axehead whistled sharply through the air, ending its journey deep in the chest of the wide-eyed spearman.
As his second opponent crumpled beside him, Grigori turned and grabbed him by the throat, yanking him close and snarling in his face.  He shouted in a guttural rasp, Slavic-accented vowels like the rasp of a blade against a whetstone:  “HAD DESIGNS ON MY LIVER, SAVAGE?  THOUGHT TO MAKE A MEAL UFF MY CORPSE?”  He clutched the man even closer, aspirating blood into his face.  “Perhaps I shall dine on yours instead.  YES, think on that as you go, you svein…”  He shook the dying man until the light drained from his eyes; then, the strength gone from his hands, Grigori released him.  With a long, shuddering groan, he crumpled onto his side, his legs splayed awkwardly beneath him, still transfixed by the spear though his back.
And then it was quiet, except for Grigori’s gasping breaths, and Will hovered amidst the carnage, reeling.  Had he been physically present for what he’d just seen, he thought, he’d almost certainly have been physically sick.  Instead, what he felt was the sort of creeping horror that accompanies nausea―but without the cathartic release of actually purging himself, there was no way to rid himself of it.
And yet that wasn’t the very worst of it.  Because there was a feeling slowly welling up inside Will which he didn’t have a name for, but which was far uglier, far nastier, than mere horror.  I’m not glad that this happened, Will thought to myself.  But…  And yes, the feeling was there, swelling and asserting itself.  Contemptible, insidious, evil…but undeniable.
I’m not glad that this happened.  But I am glad that I was here to see it.
Will want to scour his brain clean.  He floated over towards the center of the carnage.  He forced himself to look at it, begged himself to hate it.  Nonetheless, the horrible, voyeuristic instinct remained, as strong as ever.  My God, Will thought.  What kind of person must I have been?
  He found himself hovering directly in front of Grigori.  The right half of the axeman’s face was buried in the dust, but his left eye was open, and regarded Will’s heartlight quizzically.  “My thanks, tovarisch,” he mumbled.  “It vass a good plan…vithout your help, I would no doubt be roasting on that spit ziss very moment.  The fault is not yours, that I lacked the vill to execute my end uff the bargain.”  He stared.  “Do I know you?”  A pause.  “I suppose…it does not matter.  I vill be joining you very shortly, I think.  It seems that the muddy road of my life hass reached its end.”
Will heard voices; then, there was a burst of activity as Ben, Jason, Buck and three others crested the rise to his right, Buddy’s heartlight bobbing along behind them.  “Ah,” Grigori mumbled, “The cavalry arrives.”  Somehow, unfathomably, the bearded man found the strength to lift his head off the ground, and even to prop himself up on an elbow.  “Hello, my friends!” he grunted, as Jason and two of the others raced over to his side  “Not to worry!  All iss under control!”  He gestured expansively at the scene around him.  “As you can see, ziss one and I haff vanquished the enemy!”
Ben surveyed the scene with a jaundiced expression.  “Yes, a most impressive victory.”  The rescue party was swarming over the scene now; the men beside Jason had deployed an impromptu stretcher and what seemed like a small satchel of herbs, crude bandages, and other supplies.  Buck and a severe-looking woman were picking over the corpses of Grigori’s assailants as Ben continued to speak.  “My congratu―”  His face went suddenly white.  “Good God, man, you’ve got a spear through you!”
 “You were always a most observant man, Ben,” Grigori replied, wearing an expression of ghastly cheer.  “I don’t suppose I could persuade zhu to aid me in, eh, removing it?”  He raised an eyebrow hopefully.
Ben glanced at Jason, who was squatting behind Grigori, inspecting the entry wound.  Jason met Ben’s gaze and shook his head rapidly.  Ben grimaced.  “That…will be difficult, I’m afraid.  At the moment, that spear is the only thing keeping you from bleeding out.  Even a man of your formidable constitution wouldn’t be able to get back to town alive.”
Alive?” Grigori responded, his face growing slack.  “Ben…you cannot be serious.  Surely you can see that this life is finished for me.  It is time for me to start over again.  A new incarnation.  A new body.”  A spasm of pain wracked his face.  “And…quickly, I think.  This isss…unpleasant.  Very much so.”
Ben went to one knee before him, his face serious.  “How many times is this now, Grigori?  Which incarnation is this for you?”
Lying on his side, Grigori reflected.  “Vell…there was the first, of course, about a century ago, now.  And that body was old, and worn, so I cast it aside, as people do.  And then there was the, eh, complicated business, that vinter.  With the voman.  People vere…angry.”
Behind him, Jason spoke up.  “The way I heard it,” he said, “you were shot three times with a crossbow, poisoned, stabbed repeatedly, bludgeoned, tied up, and thrown into the river.  And then they found your body two miles downstream.  You worked your hands free and crawled up through a hole in the ice, only to die of exposure.”
Grigori took a moment to reflect on this.  “People were, perhaps…very angry,” he amended.
Ben’s face was grim.  “You know how it works, Grigori.  Each incarnation is more difficult than the last.  Most people, if carefully guided, can manage two incarnations.  A few can manage three.  Virtually no one is capable of a fourth.  How long did it take you to come back, the last time?”
Grigori’s eyes were closed, his face white with pain.  Whatever form of shock had been shielding him, he was starting to come out of it.  “Nine months,” he responded bitterly.  “Nine very difficult months.”  He suddenly gave an explosive shout:  “AHHHH!  MERCIFUL GOD!  VHAT ARE YOU DOING BACK THERE, YOU FOOL?”  His beard was flecked with spittle and crusted with brown streaks of blood, his eyes wilder than ever, if such a thing were possible.
Jason bit his lip; his hands worked busily, hacking away at the spear with a serrated blade.  “We have to saw off the shaft, Grigori.  We can’t get you on the litter otherwise.  I know it hurts, but there’s no other way.”  Buddy’s heartlight, which had been hovering at the edge of the hilltop in what Will presumed was horror, was at last slowly drifting over towards them, and finally came to rest beside him.
“OF COURSE THERE IS ANOTHER WAY!”  Grigori turned back to Ben, his eyes pleading.  “Ben…he got me through the spine.  My legs…I cannot feel them.  I feel nothing at all from the waist down.  This body…you might keep it alive, but…it is finished.”  The man who had been a berserk warrior minutes before had been reduced to a quivering wreck.  “The yellow flask for me, Ben.  Please.  I can endure no more of this.  I am of no use to you in this state.”
Ben cast his eyes to the ground, then shook his head.  “This community still has need of you, Grigori.  You have not been absolved of your obligations here, and I cannot let you throw your last life away…”
“Why not?  WHY NOT, Ben?  It iss MY life!”
Ben’s gaze lifted, and met the bearded man’s squarely.  “Is it, Grigori?”  Jason had managed to saw through the shaft; it parted with a CRACK, and the jolt sent a shudder of agony through his patient.  “Is it, in fact, your life?  Was it you who brought yourself back into the world, that first time, a century ago?  When you had no body, and no concept of how to obtain one?  Or was that Black Susanna?”  Jason and his compatriots were edging the deerhide stretcher underneath Grigori now, and slowly rolled him onto his back; he groaned with the effort.  “Was it you alone who ushered yourself back into the world, the second and third times?  Who gave you your life?  Was it you?  Or was it the accumulated knowledge of Haven, of the community, which gave you back the lives you kept carelessly throwing away?”  Grigori was aloft now, with Jason alongside him and two stretcher-bearers fore and aft, gripping the poles from which his limp, bleeding body was suspended.  “You are more difficult to kill than any other man I’ve ever met, Grigori.  I need you―Haven needs you―to stay unkillable for a little while longer.  Your debt to this community is not yet paid.”
“He does have a point, Grigori,” Jason muttered.
Grigori gritted his teeth, staring down at the spar of wood that still jutted from his stomach.  “It seems everyone hass a point for me today,” he spat.  “But mercy?  Of that, no one has even a little bit.”  White-faced, he looked up at Ben.  “God damn you, Ben,” he hissed.  “You make me a cripple, a subject for pity.  You take my autonomy, my dignity from me.  I will not forget.  I will see you answer to God for it…”  But the litter-bearers were in motion, carrying him away over the edge of the hill, back towards Haven. 
Jason remained, his arms red to the elbow.  Ben turned to him.  “Give him willow bark for the pain,” he ordered.  “Have him strapped to the gurney in the infirmary.  Make sure he gets the best care we can offer―Dennis the Barber for surgery, and Majel and DeForest to attend him afterwards.  I want two of our men with him every moment of every day until this suicidal madness passes.”  He paused.  “And then one week longer.  This is, after all, Grigori we’re talking about.  Suicidal madness is the central element of his existence.  And have our men scour his home for blades, belts―anything that he might use to harm himself.”  Jason nodded, his expression somber, then turned and trotted off down the hillside.
Ben watched him go, then turned grim-faced to Buddy and Will.  “I am very, very sorry you had to see this.”
            And that was all it took to remind Will of the feeling he’d been dodging.  But I’m not sorry, am I?  Something in me is GLAD I saw this.  Once he recognized the feeling, he couldn’t dismiss it.  His mind returned to it again and again, like a tongue prodding at a loose tooth.  What kind of person savors this sort of experience?  What kind of sick mind appreciates seeing two men killed and another impaled?  Who was I, in life, that I learned to appreciate this sort of scene?  A gang member?  A child soldier?  What sort of monster must I have been?
Buck, meanwhile, had finished with the corpses, and ambled back over to stand before Ben.  “Usual story, Ben.  Hillmen, no doubt about it.  Crude habits, crude weapons, and willin’ to use ‘em.  Oh, and another one of these.  Found it around the young fella’s neck.”  He extended his palm, which held a crude leather thong from which a strange silver pendant dangled.  The device was in the shape of an equilateral triangle; from each vertex, a thin and fragile spire of silver extended inwards.  The lines met in the exact center of the device, trisecting it into three smaller triangles.
Ben shook his head.  “They’ve started wearing them in Haven now, you know.  Primitive, superstitious drivel…but there is no limit to the credulity of the untrained mind, it seems.”  He shook his head.  “Return it to its owner.  Leave the two of them for the crows.  And for the love of God…” ―he gestured towards the meat roasting above the fire―”please get that off the spit and give it a decent burial.”
Will looked back at the fire, and at the ribs above it.  And, for the first time, he took a long look at them, and understood exactly what manner of animal might have produced a ribcage of that shape and size.  And he recalled what Grigori had said to the balding man as he killed him.  And the nauseating horror was back again, in earnest.
It was almost enough to make him wish he’d followed Ben’s instructions and stayed in Haven.  Almost enough to make him wish he’d never come up on the bluff.  Almost enough to make him wish he hadn’t seen any of it.
Almost enough.  But not quite.  That hideous little particle in Will was lurking, watching it all.  It had to see, and was glad to have seen.
Ben turned to address Will and Buddy.  “We need to get the two of you into bodies as soon as possible.  If the hillmen are back in earnest, Haven is going to need every available man to confront them.  Please rejoin me at the Redoubt at your earliest convenience.  Buck, I’d be grateful if you’d conclude affairs here.”  And he turned and marched off down the hillside, leaving Buck alone with the two floating souls.
Buck watched him go, then turned back to glance at the fire, where his compatriots were removing the remains from the spit.  “Harriet’s gonna kill me for gettin’ mixed up in this,” he muttered.  “Can’t say I blame her, neither.  Ain’t no business for a sane man.”
He glanced down at his hand, where the triangular pendant still gleamed, then back up at Buddy and Will.  “Right nice meetin’ you two today.  A word of advice, if you’re so inclined.”  He shut his fist around the pendant.  “Some say ‘silver is safety’, and some…”―he glanced back down the hill, where Ben trudged onwards, back toward town―”…some say iron.  You ask me?”  He shook his head.  “Haven’s got its charms.  But if it’s safety you want?  Best stay on the side of the grave you’re on now.”
He shook his head again, sadly.  “Because, silver or iron,” he intoned,” there ain’t no real safety in Haven.”

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