Death was no longer just a part of the routine to Varrus. He stared into a nearly-empty cooking pot while absently stirring the steaming broth in it that remained after dinner. He wasn’t thinking about the meager meal or his grumbling stomach, though. His mind was pacing over the now well-worn path of recent memory. The persistent image of his friend, wrapped in a canvas sack, being dumped into a common burial pit alongside Dargon’s unwanted, unknown souls was detailed and sharp to him, almost more real than the kitchen hearth before him.
Lovush had been stolen from him with agonizing slowness over the course of a fortnight as a fever had burned away his spirit and a swelling of the throat had squeezed the body into choking submission to death. Lovush had been the senior apprentice to the Death Rattler, and now the responsibility fell to Varrus. It was a job he would just as soon not be burdened with. His chores were gruesome enough.
The Death Rattler’s job, and thus the job of his crew, was to gather the garbage from the streets of Dargon. The gutters were always full of rot and decay, and it was left to the Rattler and his apprentices to keep the sewage from overtaking the city’s homes and businesses. They scooped up what they could and ensured that what remained would flow freely through the gutters with the next rain. They also patrolled the alleys, which is where they usually found the dead.
It wasn’t often that the Rattler’s crew found cadavers on their daily rounds, but with Dargon being a port town, there were occasionally wandering sailors or naive travelers going where they shouldn’t. An unlucky few would meet their untimely end in an alley with their skull bashed in or their throat slashed open. They were typically far from home with no one to claim their body for a proper burial. So it fell to the aptly named Death Rattler to collect them and dispose of them.
Varrus looked over his shoulder to see his master sitting straight-backed at a massive wood table that dominated the small room. The Death Rattler was slowly spooning up some stew and did not notice Varrus’ scrutiny. The old man’s face was narrow, lined, and pale, like melted candle wax. Layers of frayed robes were wrapped tightly around the Rattler and hung loose from his arms. One thin, gnarled hand was wrapped firmly around an equally knotted staff about fourteen hands high. The staff had a crude, rust-spotted spike fitted onto the bottom and a gourd-shaped protrusion at the top.
Varrus glared at the staff. Inside its strange gourd were teeth gathered from the dead that were now piled in the pit outside. The Rattler pulled a tooth from each carcass and deposited it in that container, provided, of course, that the victim had teeth. Varrus had no idea why the Rattler did such a strange thing, but he did know that one of his friend’s teeth was now mixed in there with the others.
The staff suddenly shook, producing a hollow rattle that broke Varrus’ reverie. He rapidly blinked his watery eyes and saw his master looking at him. The Rattler deposited his spoon in his bowl and then slashed his hand through the air in a few quick gestures; the man was mute and so used handspeak to communicate. Without seeing if his apprentice acknowledged his directions, the Rattler turned back to his stew and resumed eating.
The Rattler had told Varrus to go to bed. Varrus had no trouble obeying; he felt drained both physically and mentally. He walked across the room and passed behind the Rattler as he mumbled, “Good evening.”
Varrus wearily shuffled out of the kitchen into the main room where three other apprentices were already fast asleep buried in furs and blankets on straw pallets on the dirt floor. Varrus envied them. Now that he was the senior apprentice, his workload had increased. He was not just a member of the Rattler’s crew; he was now also the man’s servant. The job was his not just because he was the oldest, but more importantly it was because he understood handspeak whereas no one else did.
Varrus stopped at his pallet and sighed. His breath fogged in the cold room and vanished quickly like a ghost in the dark. Varrus remembered when Lovush had taught him the intricate flow of handspeak gestures a few years ago. Varrus had thought it was fun. He had been privy to something the other apprentices were not. But now he regretted having the knowledge. He wanted no part of the responsibility that went with the skill.
He knelt and quickly untangled his bed covers. There were not many to straighten out. Lovush had possessed a great mound of comfortable covers, but when he had died the other apprentices had helped themselves to the blankets while Varrus had stood idly by watching with horror just how callous the others could be.
He slipped his shivering body into the comfort of his pallet and tucked the blankets securely around him against the cold. Before he could snuggle into a comfortable position, though, someone pounded loudly on the front door. Varrus groaned and muttered curses to himself. He waited a few moments, but the visitor pounded again, this time louder and longer. With anger temporarily pushing aside his exhaustion, Varrus sat up and tossed his coverings aside. He stood up and trudged across the room to the door. He reached it just as the pounding sounded again.
“Who’s there?” he yelled grumpily through the door.
“Kraltus, a stonemason from the south end of town,” a man answered.
“What do you want?” Varrus asked. He wanted to add ‘at this bell’ but realized that it actually was only late afternoon. The Death Rattler and his crew awoke early each morning, long before dawn and long before most of Dargon’s residents. That had a tendency to offset Varrus’ concept of time from everyone else’s.
“Just open the door, boy,” Kraltus snapped.
Varrus sighed, then gritted his teeth and unlatched the door. He warily pulled it open just enough to see outside. Standing immediately on the other side of the door was a squat bulk of a man and hovering in his shadow was a miniature version of the man. Kraltus was twiddling a bushy, unkempt mustache with one hand and the other hand was planted firmly on his hip.
“I’ve got business with the Rattler,” said Kraltus. “Hurry up and go get him, boy.” Behind the stonemason, the boy stood very still; it looked to Varrus as if his attention was focused on something on the ground, but he couldn’t quite tell because he was mostly hidden behind Kraltus’ bulk.
Without a word, Varrus shut and relatched the door. He rubbed his brow for a moment, trying to ease the tension and exhaustion he felt. He turned to fetch his master, but to his surprise found the man standing right behind him. He jumped in momentary shock.
The Death Rattler stared impassively at the teenage boy. The Rattler stood straight and tall — at least a full head taller than most people found walking the streets of Dargon — and his staff was gripped, as always, in his left hand. Long, straight, gray hair hung from his scalp like open curtains, accentuating how abnormally long his face was.
Varrus composed himself and said to the Rattler, “A man is waiting outside. He says he is a stonemason and has business with you. He has a boy with him.” Varrus rubbed his hands together and wished he had thought to wrap a blanket around himself before answering the door.
The Rattler nodded once in acknowledgement and tilted his staff towards the door. Varrus unlatched the door again, pulled it wide open and then stood aside. The Rattler slowly stepped forward across the threshold.
Kraltus was still stroking his mustache, but this time with the other hand. He craned his head up to look at the tall figure walking towards him and his hand froze in place on his face. He seemed surprised for some reason; Varrus figured it might be the Rattler’s imposing presence. Surprise was a common reaction of people meeting the Death Rattler for the first time.
The Rattler, dressed in dark robes and carrying the strange staff, projected an aura of mysticism and dark secrets. Adding to the image was the man’s unusual title and equally unusual job: collecting the dead. Even though the bulk of the Rattler’s work involved collecting garbage from the town’s streets, the general public fixated on the rare yet apparently fascinating task of hauling away corpses.
The Rattler stopped in front of the stonemason and stared silently at the shorter man. Varrus also stepped forward so as to be ready to interpret for the Rattler. Varrus looked expectantly at the Rattler and waited. The Rattler’s eyes, however, were fixed on Kraltus. His stare was completely devoid of emotion; there was not even a gleam of curiosity. Varrus thought it looked like the stare of a hawk patiently waiting for its next meal to present itself.
Kraltus eased his hand that had been stroking his moustache down to rest on his hip and nervously held the Rattler’s gaze for a moment before finally shifting his attention to the silent boy behind him. He cleared his throat and pointed a thick finger at the fat lad while addressing the Rattler.
“I heard you were in need of a new apprentice, so I brought my boy up here to see if he’ll do,” said Kraltus in a booming voice. He grabbed hold of the boy’s chin and forced the boy to look up at the Rattler. “He’s a strong ‘un and fit for labor. He’s a bit slow in the head, but I don’t figure you’ll be needing a lad with wits in your line of work.” He cleared his throat again, and pointedly refrained from looking at the Rattler.
Varrus shook his head in disbelief. Lovush was dumped in his grave no more than a few bells ago and already a replacement was being offered. He looked up at the Rattler with fresh tears in his eyes and wondered how long ago the man had started asking around for a new apprentice.
Kraltus’ boy seemed oblivious to what was happening around him. Varrus looked at him and could see the boy was stocky with greasy black hair hanging around his face to down just past his shoulders. He had bushy eyebrows and a bulbous nose that was oozing a bit, probably because of the cold weather. The boy stared right back at the Death Rattler without fear or nervousness. His chin was firmly held upward by his father’s meaty hand, and he didn’t resist at all. Everything about the child spoke of acquiescence.
An awkward moment passed as the Rattler stood motionless and the stonemason continued to hold onto the boy’s chin. Kraltus looked at the boy as if inspecting him for the first time, apparently in an effort to avoid the Rattler’s penetrating gaze.
Finally, the stonemason let go of the boy and the boy immediately turned to look at something on the ground behind him; Varrus couldn’t see what. Kraltus ignored his son and dipped a hand into his vest and produced a small pouch. He clenched it in his fist for a moment then reluctantly presented it to the Death Rattler.
“Here’s money to cover his apprenticeship,” he said.
The Death Rattler snatched the bag from the other man’s hand without ever taking his eyes off Kraltus’ face. He hefted the pouch, feeling its weight before opening it. He then released his grip on the staff and held it in the crook of his elbow as he used both hands to pull open the pouch. He fished around inside with a finger, making the coins clink against each other, and merely glanced down into it only to return his gaze to Kraltus. He then pulled the drawstring on it tight and shook his head. He held the bag in one hand and signed to Varrus with the other.
Varrus read the signing and turned to Kraltus. “The money is not enough.” His voice squeaked a bit because his mind was still mixed up in the emotions felt towards his friend. He cleared his throat and continued, “The boy will be accepted for one month, but more money will be needed by the end of that time before the deal can be considered closed.”
Kraltus glared at Varrus and snapped, “Shut up, boy. This is no business of yours.” Apparently the man had no idea that the Death Rattler could not talk. Varrus was used to the reaction, though, and so launched into his standard reply.
“I am speaking for the Death Rattler. He can’t speak properly and so uses his hands to talk. I understand the signing and translate for him. I was only telling you what the Death Rattler said.”
Kraltus looked mystified and stared disbelievingly at Varrus. Varrus nodded to add emphasis to his explanation. The stonemason glanced at the Death Rattler out of the corner of his eye then looked back at Varrus. The mystified look gradually faded as the man thought things through. With a firm nod, as if agreeing with himself on some decision finally reached, he said to Varrus, “How much more?”
Varrus turned to the Death Rattler who immediately replied, obviously having expected the question.
“The same amount as is in the pouch and the deal will be closed,” Varrus reported to Kraltus.
Kraltus twiddled with his moustache while considering the proposal. “I will need two months to raise the money.”
It was the Rattler’s turn to think it over. He finally signed his response.
“The Rattler agrees, but wants to let you know that the boy will be returned to you after two months if payment is not made.”
The stonemason nodded and said, “Ya, fine.” He then turned to his son, who through all this had been staring steadily at the tall grass lining the path leading to the door. He roughly grabbed the boy’s shoulder and snatched him around. “You belong to them now,” he said as he jabbed his thumb in the Rattler’s direction. “Got it?”
The boy looked at the Death Rattler and Varrus without any noticeable emotion or thought showing on his round face. He paid little heed to them and looked back at his father. “When do I go home?” he asked.
“You are home. Now get your clothes and get inside.” The man looked around and not seeing what he was looking for asked, “Where are your clothes, boy? Don’t tell me you didn’t bring them!”
“I dropped them back there,” the boy said as he pointed back down the path they had arrived on.
Kraltus grabbed a fistful of the boy’s tunic and lifted him up onto his toes. He growled out, “Why didn’t you pick the trash up?”
The boy seemed nonplussed and unaware he had done anything wrong. In a slow drawl he answered, “You told me to hurry up and quit fooling around.”
Kraltus heaved his son away from him and the boy landed in the tall grass, almost disappearing from sight in the long, deep shadows that had been developing as the sun quickly approached the horizon. “He’s all yours,” said the stonemason without so much as a glance around him as he stomped back to the city silhouetted in the distance.
Varrus walked over to the boy who was slowly getting up. Once standing again his eyes turned to his departing father as his brow creased in apparent concentration. Varrus placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and asked, “You all right?”
The boy didn’t respond; he just kept staring. Varrus’ concentration on the boy was broken by the sound of snapping fingers. He turned in the direction of the sound, knowing it was the Rattler demanding his attention. The Rattler signed to him to take the boy down the path to find his clothes and then bed down for the evening. Varrus nodded his understanding.
The Death Rattler then proceeded back inside, the money pouch dangling from between the fingers of the hand clutching his staff. He closed the door behind him.
Varrus turned back to the boy who was still looking wistfully after his father. “Let’s get your stuff, all right?” When the boy didn’t respond he asked, “What is your name?” There was still no recognition from the boy. He stood shin deep in the grass, dirt still clinging to his tunic, leggings, and hands from when had been pushed down. The boy fidgeted a bit, clenching and unclenching his hands. Varrus touched the boy’s shoulder again and gently shook him. The boy finally looked up at him.
“Come on. We need to get moving and get to bed.” Varrus gently pulled at the boy’s tunic and moved away in the direction Kraltus had gone. “How far back did you drop your clothes?”
Just like the snuffing out of a candle, the boy instantly changed moods and became as he had been when he had first arrived, simple and blank. He started walking and came abreast of Varrus, his eyes now locked on the older boy’s face.
“My name is Cail. I’m stronger than you. Want to see?”
Varrus was surprised by the boy’s sudden switch in demeanor and the strange question. He shook his head. “No, I don’t want to see. Where are your clothes?”
Cail seemed to find that question very funny. A grin as wide as the moon and full of crooked teeth popped onto his face. “They’re here,” he said with a hint of incredulity in his tone while he tugged at his tunic.
Varrus shook his head and it began to dawn on him that the boy was going to make his life quite a bit harder. Cail was obviously not privy to the common man’s full mental capability. He was going to need extra watching and care, which was just the opposite of what Varrus wanted in a new fellow apprentice.
“I meant your other clothes, Cail,” he said evenly. “Where are the clothes you dropped?”
“By the tree.”
“Do you mean the big tree down where the path meets the street?” Varrus asked, his patience slowly ebbing away. Varrus pointed along the path. Ahead of the boys the trail headed straight down a long slope of a hill. The area around them was mostly clear and covered with tall grass turned brown by an unusually long stretch of dry weather. Only a few thin trees were scattered in the fields, but at the bottom of the hill a massive oak stood out like a wizened grandfather watching over his distant grandchildren. The tree’s trunk was so massive that three people holding hands would barely reach all the way around.
“Sure,” Cail answered, his grin faded somewhat.
Varrus sighed and quickened his pace. A sudden yawn took possession of him reminding him that he should have been curled up asleep in some furs right then. His eyes watered a bit at the intensity of the yawn and Cail’s grin reappeared in full force.
“The sleepies are getting a hold of you,” he said through his grin.
“Mmmm,” was Varrus’ only response.
It didn’t take long to reach the tree, but dusk had already enveloped them by the time they got there. Scattered all around were some clothes.
“He kicked them,” offered Cail as explanation for the mess. “He kicked them when he went home.”
“Well, pick them up so we can get to bed. We’ll be getting up early, and the Rattler will thump you with that staff of his if you’re not moving fast enough in the morning. Understand?”
Cail nodded and bent to retrieve his scattered belongings. Varrus watched while rubbing his hands together and then he stuck them under his armpits for warmth. He glanced up at the sky and noticed heavy cloud cover blocking the stars from sight. Varrus hoped it wouldn’t storm during the night, as it always made his work harder.
“I’m ready,” announced Cail, which snatched Varrus’ attention back on him.
“Let’s get to bed then.”
Varrus awoke in the chilled early morning darkness as the Death Rattler jabbed him with his staff. Varrus groggily sat up, and grabbed the staff and tugged on it to let his master know he was up and moving. The Rattler had no tolerance for anyone moving too slow. Varrus still had bruises on his leg from a beating he had received the last time he had not got up fast enough. He could hear the Rattler move away, his heavy staff thudding into the dirt floor.
It took a while for Varrus to gather his senses. He sat on his pallet shivering and cursing his lack of adequate sleep. Eventually, he clambered the rest of the way out of his coverings and shuffled around to the other sleeping forms around him, kicking and shaking them into consciousness. As usual, not all of them were willing to give up their warm beds, and Varrus would later have to make his rounds again to get them moving. One of those who refused to budge was Cail. He snored in great dragon-loud snorts even after a violent kick from Varrus.
Varrus quickly moved into the kitchen and headed directly for the fireplace. His priority was on getting a fire blazing and some breakfast warmed up. He had found over the years that a warm breakfast was the major difference between the start of a good day and a bad one. He dropped to his knees and with hands shaking with cold he set to work getting the previous night’s ashes brushed out and new kindling stacked.
One of the apprentices joined him in a few moments. She knelt next to him with a fur wrapped around her and drowsily watched him work. Varrus glanced over his shoulder and saw it was Trish but didn’t pause in his work.
“Make sure Dreidel gets out there to hitch up the donkey. I want it done before we eat. And get the new kid up and have him help Dreidel,” he said.
“New kid?” she asked.
“Yea. A new apprentice was dropped off last night. He’s a real big kid. He’s sleeping against the far wall and snoring like a wild boar. How could you miss him?”
“I thought that was Bohall snoring,” she said absently as she stood and yanked the fur into a better position. “Is he going to be here for good?”
“I don’t know, Trish. Just hurry up. I need you to slice up some bacon.”
She nodded and walked out of the kitchen. Varrus finally got the kindling to catch fire and he carefully fed the flames until the fire blazed healthily on its own. As he did this Dreidel stomped into the kitchen and out the back door. A few menes later Trish reappeared beside Varrus as he was trying to warm his numb fingers.
“The new boy isn’t budging,” she said in exasperation.
“Fine. I’ll get him up.” He rubbed his hands together one last time and stood up, regretting the need to leave the fire.
Varrus left the kitchen and walked into the main room where he found two people in the light of a recently lit lamp. One was still lying down and the other was standing just a few paces from the first.
“Mornin’ Bohall. That’s Cail, a new apprentice,” Varrus explained to the one standing. Bohall was a thick, muscular boy with wild red hair that almost always seemed to be blowing about in a breeze.
Bohall snapped his hand up to hush Varrus and then waved him forward. Varrus sighed in exasperation at being treated this way. Bohall had never ordered Lovush around.
Varrus shuffled forward and as he neared Bohall, Cail twisted around under his blankets and whispered something Varrus couldn’t hear. Curiosity made Varrus walk past Bohall and kneel beside Cail. His eyes were wide open and staring intently at Bohall’s feet.
“It’s time to get up, Cail. Let’s go,” Varrus said loudly in an attempt to show Bohall that he was in charge.
“He’s wearing the man’s shoes,” whispered Cail.
“That kid is wearing the man’s shoes,” he repeated as he stuck his chin out in Bohall’s direction. Cail seemed scared about something, but Varrus didn’t understand what could have the boy acting so weird. He turned to look at Bohall’s shoes and thought for a minute about where they had come from, but drew a blank.
“Where did you get those shoes?” he asked Bohall.
Bohall didn’t answer right away, which caused Varrus’ attention to shift from his shoes to his face. Bohall was looking at Cail with suspicion clear on his face. “What’s the problem?” Varrus prodded.
“He’s been yakking about my having stolen these shoes off of some guy who wants them back,” Bohall said tensely. “The guy I got these from ain’t needing them back anytime soon.”
“You pulled them off one of the bodies?”
“Yeah … about three sennights ago. You remember the one with the bashed-in face?”
“He stole them from the man,” interrupted Cail with a touch of desperation in his voice.
“Shut up, boy!” yelled Bohall. His voice stung Varrus’ ears as it rang through the quiet of early morning. “I’ll make your fat face look like that body’s did.”
“He wants his comfortable shoes back!” Cail matched Bohall’s volume and finally shoved himself to a sitting position.
“I’m gonna feed you to the rats, boy!” warned Bohall as he stomped forward, reaching for Cail with one hand and clenching a fist with the other. Varrus leaped up in Bohall’s path and with his hands firmly latched on the angry boy’s shoulders pushed him back a few steps.
“Get on with your chores, Bohall,” Varrus ordered desperately. He didn’t want a fight breaking out when the Rattler could be walking in at any time. He did what he could to pacify Bohall. “He’s just messing with you,” he said. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“Shoes, shoes, shoes,” hollered Cail over and over again. The tone of voice wasn’t taunting, though, and Varrus felt a little unnerved by Cail’s conviction that the shoes belonged to someone the boy knew.
“I’ll plant your fat ass right next to the shoes’ old owner, you hog turd! Then you can tell the rotting body just how comfortable I think his shoes are.” Bohall was trying hard to get by Varrus, but the older boy was able to hold him in place — just barely. Varrus glanced up at the doorway in search of help and saw Trish standing there.
“Get Cail out of here,” Varrus pleaded. Trish turned around, threw something she had been holding into the kitchen and then dashed towards Cail, being careful to skirt around the two struggling boys. Varrus glanced over his shoulder and saw Cail thrusting his finger repeatedly at Bohall while hollering about the shoes. Trish carefully approached the upset boy and tried to soothe him.
Varrus turned his attention back to Bohall, who was still struggling to get at his tormentor. “Calm down. We don’t want the Rattler getting mad at us,” Varrus said to him as he tried to steer him towards the front door. Bohall calmed down a little and allowed himself to be led to the door, but he still glared at Cail through the dimly lit room. Cail also let himself be escorted out of the room by Trish as he still muttered about shoes.
With one hand still resting on Bohall’s shoulder, Varrus unlatched the door and pulled it open. “Come on, let’s go outside and get this day started, straight?” said Varrus. “The Rattler will be coming out soon and he’ll be mad if nothing is ready to go.”
“Where did that pot of lard come from?” asked Bohall, his attention finally shifting to Varrus as they passed through the doorway.
“He was dropped off last night by some stonemason. He’s a bit slow, so I think you just need to ignore him.”
“Kinda hard to ignore such an idiot,” huffed Bohall. “Keep him out of my way today. Got it?”
Bohall glared at the open door they had just passed through and the dark room beyond it for a moment, and then stomped away through the dew-wet grass around the side of the house.
Varrus took a deep breath and shook his head. He hated it when Bohall ordered him around. If only he knew how it was that Lovush had earned Bohall’s respect. Varrus was a few years older than Bohall, but age didn’t matter to the bully. Varrus was always trying to demonstrate to Bohall that he was capable of being in charge, but so far nothing worked. Varrus turned and looked at the distant horizon. The sky was gradually brightening. Varrus moaned. There would be no time for a hot breakfast this morning, a sure sign of a bad day ahead.
“I hate it when the rats and dogs get to ‘em before we do,” said Bohall through clenched teeth. He was shifting a mutilated body around in an attempt to get it out of the wagon. He tugged at it by the shoulder while Cail pulled at the feet.
Varrus had to agree with Bohall even though he was standing a few paces away “directing” the work. Ragged gashes caked with dried blood gaped obscenely open and closed all over the dead man’s torso with each of the boys’ heaves. Fortunately, there were no flies in the cold weather. The hum of feasting flies had always been the worst to Varrus. Just the thought of it made his stomach churn.
“Trish, go inside and help the Rattler prepare for the body,” said Varrus. Trish nodded and walked slowly away while adjusting the braids in her hair. The whole ordeal of claiming the body and then preparing it for the spirit chasing had no apparent affect on the girl. Despite all the complaining the boys did every time a body was found, she kept quiet and went about her business just as if she were preparing a meal. Varrus wished he had her attitude, but the idea of mutilated flesh and fetid odors repulsed him without fail regardless of how many bodies he had taken care of.
“Straight, boy, you got a good grip on the legs?” Bohall asked Cail. Cail nodded while staring with obvious fascination at the dead man’s face. Varrus sucked in a nervous breath as he recalled what Cail had done when they had first discovered this body behind the Shattered Spear Inn.
While on their regular routine of clearing the trash that had accumulated in the back alleys, they had uncovered this body buried under a pile of broken crates. The man’s throat had been slit twice. It had looked as if the first time had not been deep enough to get the job done. The Rattler had instructed them not to get the body yet and he had gone around to the front of the inn.
Meanwhile, Cail had stepped close to the body and stared at its face. His hands clenched and unclenched slowly by his sides and he breathed slowly and deeply.
“What’s he sayin’?” Bohall asked Cail mockingly. “Does he want a kiss?”
Cail ignored the taunting. He just stared at the corpse as snot oozed from his nose unheeded. Varrus stepped over to Cail and nudged him.
“It’s just a body, boy. You’ll get used to dealing with them.” It was only a half-truth, as Varrus had never really gotten used to the corpses himself. He frowned as he glanced at the body, lying face-up in a patch of ground darkened by the spilled blood. It had stiffened, with one leg propped up on an overturned crate and one arm stuck out straight above its head. The outstretched fingers were dug into the dirt like he had tried to claw his way along the ground while death slowly stole his strength.
“Wonder what makes them harden like that?” asked Varrus. He looked at the still-entranced Cail and saw no answer forthcoming. He nudged the boy again, harder this time. Cail rolled his eyes around to look at Varrus in response.
“He hates them nasty bitches,” Cail whispered in a creaking voice completely unlike his own. “Says they need to be whipped like lazy horses, they do.”
Varrus’ eyes widened in momentary shock and the pit of his stomach felt like a block of ice had instantaneously formed there. He swallowed, took a step back and looked around to see if the others had heard. The others were all occupied and had not noticed. He looked back at Cail to see him grinning without any touch of humor in his bloodshot eyes. He winked at Varrus, then his grin melted away, and his face eventually resumed its docile appearance, looking as if it could never have possibly been twisted into such a gruesome expression. He turned his attention back to the corpse, once again seemingly unaware of Varrus’ presence.
Varrus’ mouth was dry and his tongue felt like it was made of hay. His pulse beat a rapid rhythm in his temples and his face flushed hot in contrast to the cold in his stomach. He couldn’t fathom what he had just seen. A fear always tickled the back of his mind when dealing with corpses; he was deathly afraid of spirits. He was terrified of the spirits that could rip a man’s sanity from him and drag him screaming to an unnatural death. That fear was now not a mere tickling, but a heavy, foreboding horror brought to life in the form of a strange boy standing transfixed by a grotesque corpse.
Varrus then heard footsteps, and the Rattler returned with the inn’s proprietor trailing along behind. Varrus hurriedly stepped away from the body to make room for the men, but Cail didn’t budge.
The two men stopped by the corpse. The inn’s owner merely glanced at the body.
“Not anyone I know,” said the man with a shrug. “I ain’t responsible for him.”
The Rattler tapped his staff on the packed dirt of the alley and stared at the man with cold eyes not unlike the corpse’s. He held out a hand to the owner, gesturing for payment.
“Ol’s balls no!” The man shook his head vigorously. “I ain’t got nothing to do with him, and I sure ain’t payin’ no money for him.”
The Rattler turned to Varrus and signed for him to start unloading here at the inn the trash that had been collected so far on the route. Varrus knew well the game about to be played, but he still felt unnerved by the way Cail had acted. He elbowed Bohall and waved him over to the wagon. Together they started pulling trash off the wagon and made a big show of dropping it to the ground. Varrus usually took great pleasure in playing the game, but he just couldn’t make the chill of shock go away. His fellow apprentices made up for Varrus’ lack of enthusiasm, though, and joined in, throwing bones, shredded cloth, dead rodents, busted pottery and the like haphazardly about the alley. It didn’t take long for the inn owner to start howling.
“The guards will hear of this,” he hollered, but Varrus and his crew continued their work.
“May the fleas of a thousand dogs infest your crotch!” cursed the man, weakness creeping into his voice. Varrus saw that Bohall and the others were straining to contain grins and laughter. Varrus looked over his shoulder at Cail, who was still standing over the body, his hands flexing rhythmically.
Varrus heard the wagon creak loudly and he turned back around to see Bohall climbing up into the wagon to get at a big box of rancid beef. He heaved it up onto the wagon’s side and proceeded to slowly tip it over so that the meat would splat all over the ground in a slimy waterfall.
“Stop!” screamed the man. “Fine, fine. Hold on and I’ll get your coin.”
Bohall stopped tipping but didn’t pull the box back into the wagon, leaving a slab of meat dangling precariously close to sliding out. The man fumed and grumbled under his breath, but turned and went back to his inn. Bohall leaned nonchalantly on the box, but finally couldn’t contain his laughter anymore once the man was out of sight.
Varrus interrupted Bohall’s joy. “There’s something wrong with Cail,” he said to Bohall. “He’s acting real … strange.”
“You’re just now noticing?” asked Bohall in mock disbelief. “Maybe you also noticed that the sun rises every day, or is that too many new things for you all at once?”
“I’m serious, Bohall. The boy is talking strange. I think he might have the mind sickness or something. Nobody normal acts like that.” Varrus avoided the subject of spirits. Giving voice to his fears would only make them seem more real.
The two boys looked over at Cail who had finally moved. He was now on the other side of the body, crouched down and staring into the corpse’s eyes.
“No, he sure isn’t normal,” agreed Bohall. He then leaned in close to Varrus and whispered conspiratorially, “You want me to cure him of the sickness? It’ll be my pleasure.”
Varrus caught the hinted meaning behind the cure; Bohall would probably do the curing with his fists. Varrus sighed, shook his head, and stepped away from him. He should have known better than to expect anything serious out of Bohall. He wished Lovush were here. He would have known what to do.
The inn owner returned with the payment, which the Rattler accepted, and stayed to watch the cleanup. He started to issue orders, saying that he was going to get all the services he had just paid for, but one cold look from the Rattler shut him up and he eventually left.
Once the mess was cleaned up, the Rattler walked over to the body and eyed Cail, apparently noticing him standing by the corpse for the first time. He watched Cail for a moment, taking in the whole scene.
Varrus quickly went over to Cail and pulled him away as the Rattler watched. Cail didn’t resist, but he also never took his eyes off of the corpse.
The Rattler was eventually satisfied with Cail being led away and he knelt down by the body. From a belt hidden under his robes he pulled out a small dagger. He then pried open the deceased’s mouth and examined the yellowed teeth. He chose a tooth and used his dagger to pry it free. It came loose with a soft crunch and the Rattler carefully stood with the tooth balanced on his blade. He then dipped his staff down so that the large gourd-shaped knot was level with his dagger, and he dropped the tooth in the knot through a small hole at the top. He shook the staff and the tooth rattled among several other teeth from previous corpses. Satisfied, the Rattler then turned to Varrus and signaled to have the body loaded on the wagon.
The rest of the morning’s rounds were uneventful and the Rattler’s crew went about their business, except for Cail, who would only break away from the dead body in the cart when Bohall cuffed him soundly. Varrus kept his distance from Cail as best he could, but he couldn’t help noticing Cail mumbling to himself as he stared unblinkingly at the corpse.
Despite the gut-wrenching reaction that collecting the dead had on Varrus, he had a sense of satisfaction and relief once the whole process of releasing the spirit was done. Preparing the corpses for their final rest was always done immediately upon returning from the morning rounds. The Rattler’s crew took no chances of having a lingering spirit around.
The Rattler’s home stood atop a hill and on the back side of the hill was the entrance to a cavern. Bohall and Cail hauled the newest body into the cavern amongst quite a bit of grunting and cursing; the dead man was a large one and looked like he had enjoyed more than his fair share of food throughout his life. Varrus and Dreidel squeezed through the narrow entrance after them and came into a cavern large enough for a dozen horses and high enough that the ceiling would be just out of the Rattler’s reach if he had ever wanted to try and touch it.
Bohall directed Cail into the appropriate spot, a section of the stone floor visibly smoother than the rest. The Rattler entered the cave right behind Varrus, the metal tip of his staff tapping out a quick rhythm on the stone floor. He carried a large metal plate securely under his arm. The plate was highly polished so that it acted like a mirror. He walked over to the body as the boys set it down. Trish kneeled by it, grabbed the body’s hands and bound them together with rope that had been coated with a fruit’s juice and pulp. She then did the same with the feet.
“What is she doing?” asked Cail, speaking out loud for the first time since the unsettling comments to Varrus earlier. There was uncertainty in his voice and a panicked look in his eyes.
“I’m securing the body so that the spirit can’t move it,” said Trish without looking up from her work.
“Straight, and the ropes are coated with Nightfruit which the spirit ain’t supposed to like for whatever reason,” offered Dreidel. He was much more cheerful now than he was earlier this morning when he had stomped out through the kitchen to hitch up the donkey to the wagon.
“The fruit confuses the spirit and keeps it from being able to break its bonds,” said Trish.
“Whatever,” replied Dreidel with a shrug. “The fruit has some much better uses. Damned waste –”
“He don’t like it!” said Cail quickly.
“Ol’s balls I don’t,” Dreidel hollered defensively.
Varrus looked at Cail and backed away from him a few steps. He knew Cail wasn’t referring to Dreidel, but rather something else — something to do with the corpse. Cail was staring at Trish and shaking his head in frantic protest. Cail’s sudden motion had also caught the Rattler’s attention. The man had been crouching by the corpse’s head with the plate held right above the deceased’s face, but he now slowly stood and took in the unfolding drama with watchful eyes.
“He don’t like you, bitch,” said Cail. “Get away from him. Now!” He was red-faced and crazed now, a complete transformation from the docile demeanor exhibited throughout the day but reminiscent of the frightening way he had acted earlier that morning.
Trish looked up at Cail in confusion. Varrus knew he needed to step in and get the wild boy out of the cavern before things got out of control, but unreasoning fear immobilized him. The ritual performed here in the cavern made him nervous, but it was always reassuring when the Rattler pronounced the spirit gone, chased away from the body for good by the reflection cast in the Rattler’s polished plate. Varrus’ fear was in full force now, though. Cail’s behavior tapped into Varrus’ dread of the unknown just as surely as actually seeing a ghost would have.
Despite Cail’s demand, Trish didn’t move and so Cail rushed to her, grabbed her by the hair and yanked violently, sending her rolling across the floor. Before Trish had even stopped rolling, Bohall leaped forward and with a roundhouse punch knocked the big boy off balance. Cail landed hard on his side as the air whooshed out of him. Bohall followed up with a foot to the downed boy’s face. Cail’s nose audibly crunched upon contact and then his head smacked the floor and he went still. Splattered blood covered Cail’s face and it swelled as blotches of bruised purple appeared.
Varrus stared at Cail but still couldn’t bring himself to move.
“What was that all about?” asked Dreidel as he helped Trish to her feet. No one answered. Everyone’s attention had shifted to the Rattler, waiting for a reaction. The pale man seemed oblivious to his audience as he glared at Cail. His face was creased with lines born of deep contemplation. A moment later he set down the plate he had been holding, leaning it next to his staff against the cave wall, and then he slowly wormed his fingers around the twisted wood of his staff and pulled it to him, letting the metal tip scrape across the stone floor. All the while, he continued to stare at Cail, and with his free hand he made a few curt gestures at Varrus.
“Bohall, check out Cail,” interpreted Varrus in a shaky whisper. “Is he … all right?”
Bohall leaned over Cail, looked closely and said with disappointment heavy in his voice, “He’s still breathing. I guess he’s all right.”
Varrus looked back over at the Rattler to see him now staring directly at him. The Rattler gestured again, this time asking a long, pointed question of the frightened senior apprentice. Varrus’ throat locked up on him as his unspoken fears were dragged unmercifully to the surface of his thoughts by the Rattler’s question. The Rattler had asked if it had seemed that Cail had been somehow seeing spirits during his short stay with them.
Varrus’ spine quivered as he recalled Cail saying, “they need to be whipped like lazy horses” in that awful, unnatural voice. Varrus’ eyes then widened a bit as his memory suddenly produced the whole shoe incident between Cail and Bohall.
The Rattler didn’t need a verbal answer as he read everything he needed to know right off of Varrus’ face. He directed Varrus to have Cail removed from the cave.
The senior apprentice turned to the others. They were all watching with various levels of interest. Bohall was massaging his knuckles and waiting for instructions. Trish was fixing her braids while Dreidel looked at Varrus in total confusion.
“Bohall,” croaked Varrus. He cleared his throat, swallowed. “You and Dreidel get him out of here,” he said as he nodded at Cail. As if awaiting that exact order, Bohall reached down, grabbed Cail under the shoulders and started to drag him to the cave entrance. Dreidel still had a lost look on his face as he walked across the cave to help.
The two boys eventually wrestled the boy through the narrow opening but could be heard talking once they were out of sight.
“What was that all about?” repeated Dreidel. There was still no answer.
The Rattler crossed the cave to Varrus while reaching under the folds of his robe for his belt. As he got closer he pulled out his small dagger and held it out to his apprentice. Varrus stared at it uncomprehendingly, then he ignored it altogether as he glanced over at the corpse still prone on the floor.
He breathed deep and tried to bring himself under control. The body was inanimate and unthreatening. No spirits had appeared to snatch his life away. There had been no screeching wails of a Night of Souls banshee to crack the very rock he stood on. The cave was quiet, calm and cool. He latched onto that stillness and turned his attention back to the Rattler who waited calmly before him, the dagger held out for Varrus to take. Still not fully grasping the implication of the weapon, he took the dagger and looked at absently. It was old with specks of rust marring the dull metal gleam. It felt light and insignificant in his hand, as if it were a toy.
The Rattler snapped his fingers for attention and Varrus came back to reality. The dagger suddenly gained weight and Varrus dropped the hand holding it to his side. Before the Rattler began his signing, Varrus finally realized what the dagger was for.
The hand holding the weapon was numb. Varrus nodded absently at the Rattler once the man had finished his short, simple instructions. The boy was dangerous. He needed to be killed. Varrus’ throat tightened and suddenly his thoughts were of his dear friend Lovush. Lovush would have foreseen the climax of this situation long before it happened and would have done something about it. But now Varrus cursed himself for being such a simpleton; he had had no idea what was going on and now he was facing the consequences.
Varrus turned and forced his leaden feet into motion towards the cave’s exit. There was no questioning the Rattler’s orders; Varrus’ bruised leg, earned when he had not moved fast enough one morning, was a clear reminder that one should never anger the Death Rattler. Even without such an incentive Varrus knew that what he was about to do was right. Anybody who was in contact with the spirits, like Cail obviously was, had to be dealt with. Varrus just wished that he didn’t have to be the one to do it.
He emerged from the cave into the bright, cold light of day. Despite a thin cover of gray clouds, he had to wait for a moment for his eyes to adjust to the brightness. As he stood there he briefly wished he could see spirits too. He wished Lovush could appear before him and reassure him that everything would be all right.
His eyes eventually picked out the details around him. Just a few paces away Bohall was talking to Dreidel while they both stood over Cail’s inert form. Dreidel was nodding with disbelief evident on his face. It looked like the boy had finally learned what had been going on during this long day.
Varrus trudged over to them reluctantly. Bohall and Dreidel stopped their conversation once they noticed him coming.
“Do I need to finish him off?” asked Bohall evenly once Varrus had stopped beside them.
Relief suddenly washed over Varrus as he realized he would not have to do the killing. Bohall was willing to do it for him. Varrus found his breathing to be incredibly easier and the dagger that he had been hauling along with him now didn’t seem such a burden.
Varrus even managed a sheepish grin. He thrust the dagger towards Bohall and said, “Yes, the Rattler wants him dead.”
Bohall glanced down at the dagger but didn’t move to take it. Panic started to freeze up the flow of relief Varrus was feeling. He extended his arm a bit more, silently imploring Bohall to take the dagger from him.
“You’re not actually going to kill him, are you?” asked Dreidel. The scrawny boy was staring at Bohall with his usual look of disbelief on his face.
“No,” said Bohall. He looked Varrus directly in the eyes. “I think Varrus will have the honor.”
Once again Varrus’ throat clenched tight and he found it hard to breathe.
Cail moaned and all of the boys standing around him started in momentary shock. Bohall recovered first and said with a barely disguised chuckle in his voice, “Guess you better do it quick because I ain’t holding him down if he wakes up all the way.”
Varrus looked down at Cail and saw that he had tilted his head a little but was now still again. His nose had been flattened against his face and splattered blood covered him from chin to hair. At that moment all Varrus could think of was Cail grinning innocently and laughing about the sleepies getting a hold of Varrus.
“Sheesh, does he really see spirits?” asked Dreidel in amazement. “He was so quiet all day.”
That question broke through to Varrus’ sense of reason. His stranglehold on the innocent side of Cail loosened and the image of the goofy grin transformed into the grotesque grin of the boy talking about whipping lazy wenches. Varrus ground his teeth and dropped to his knees beside Cail. He gripped the dagger with both of his sweaty hands and rested the point on the boy’s chest near his heart.
Bohall started to say something, but Varrus didn’t want to hear. He tensed and then shoved the dagger down. It plunged deep, meeting little resistance all the way to the hilt. Blood welled up around the dagger and then cascaded down the boy’s side in a flood. He yanked the blade up and plunged again. He glanced away from his work to look at Cail’s face. The face was empty of emotion or pain. It was impassive in death and Varrus was thankful. He had expected screaming demons or wailing spirits to appear. But blood was the only thing produced by the boy, and that was in great quantity.
He left the dagger imbedded in Cail’s chest after the second thrust and he let go of it. He stood slowly, his eyes shifting from Cail’s face to Bohall’s. What he saw there elated him. He didn’t look upon Varrus with disrespect or disgust. Bohall looked surprised. It occurred to him that Bohall had not thought Varrus was capable of killing Cail. Varrus wandered if he had finally earned the respect he had been craving for so long.
“Should I take him in?” asked Bohall, with a sincere tone in his voice for the first time when talking to Varrus.
All Varrus could do was nod. Bohall told Dreidel to help him, and when the smaller boy balked, Bohall cuffed him and bullied him into submission.
The two boys hauled Cail back into the cavern, the dagger still stuck deep in his heart.
Varrus smiled and felt a sense of completeness. He had done what was necessary. A dangerous boy was dead and Varrus had finally taken on the role of senior apprentice in the eyes of the other apprentices. He wouldn’t need Lovush’s spirit after all. Corpses and spirits would no longer hold sway over him. Death was now just a routine matter to him. No problem at all.
A cold gust of wind shoved at Varrus and sudden shower of fat raindrops splattered on him. He hurried back to the cave, anxious to witness the spirit-releasing ceremony.