Chapter 03: The Naked One
Chapter 03 of the City of Gargoyles – Second Book in the Light-Father Trilogy
Chapter 03: The Naked One
“Shhh! Children, be quiet!” Abbot Michael said, peering through the door of the ruined farmhouse. “Tally-men have sharp ears and I should know: I augmented their hearing.”
“Everyone is exhausted,” Surl protested wearily at his side. “We have run non-stop for three days with little food or water.”
“Yet we must run again,” he said, his voice muffled by the cowl of his heavy Order field robes. He never showed his face to them as it was swathed in filthy bandages and his hands were gloved. “Fear not, I will save you, child, for God has allowed me to atone for my sins. Are you sure your friends and the Mothers are in Milverburg? Even if they are not, we need to get there: that place is a labyrinth. We could hide for months in there.”
“My visions say they are,” Surl said. She drew out a crucifix on a chain and pressed it to her lips. “On my mother’s life.”
Michael placed a gloved hand upon her bald head. “You are an extraordinary child but I know prescience comes at a price beyond the reach of our Lord whose comfort you seek.”
“I don’t believe in God,” she said angrily, brushing his hand away. “He allowed your Order to kill billions of us so he cannot be real. This is all I have left of my mother so I kiss her memory not your religion or your precious Lord.”
“Nevertheless, I researched many Mothers with that gift of yours. Do not rely on that power too much, child, for it will drain your life force and lead you astray.”
“My name is Surl not child,” she said defiantly and pushed his outstretched hand away again. “And I am not astray!”
“Yes you are, Surl, in more ways than you can imagine. Now, there are woods to the west of us but Brothers and Tally-men will be searching them and all the villages this side of Thaneton. Above us – damn this rare day without rain – we have the playthings of my old friend, Camus. If we break cover now they will see us and kill us. I am so sorry that I brought us in here to search for tinned food and water. Alas, circuitry is my specialism not strategy.”
A boy who had ten or so years came up to him and tried to peer up under the cowl but Michael drew away. The boy was dressed in filthy breeches with a wide and open face smeared with soot and grime; his black hair matted and lice-infested. He wore a crude grey shirt and a grey sleeveless jerkin with sheathes sown into it so that his five knives could be reached easily; two of which could be screwed into the mount strapped to the stump of his right wrist. He even had two sheathes strapped to his calves with a blade in one of them but his right wrist bore a crude metal claw.
“The five prisoners have all eaten as much as they could,” he reported. “It wasn’t much: they retch and gag if we try to put more food in front of them.”
“Thank you, Peter,” Michael said wearily, marvelling at the energy and will to live of these remarkable children. “I know they are exhausted but they will need to move soon or die where they are. The torture and lack of food has weakened them so please can you and Pup give them all the water that they can drink. Thank the Lord this house had a water pump indoors!”
“We will. They are resting in the bedrooms but all of them told me to thank you. You have given them a chance to die as free men not as soulless monsters. They say they would rather die here than be made into one of your Tally-men.”
“I understand,” Michael nodded, peering through the door again. He turned to a child with long wild auburn hair who had about nine years by his reckoning. She wore a filthy knitted jacket and a leather skirt over leggings and leather boots. Her brown doe eyes regarded him steadily but what had impressed him most was her speed and ferocity. She had two razor-sharp hand-axes in slings on her back and held two in her hands almost permanently.
“And what of you, Anna Olafson?” he asked formally as Peter left to tend to the injured men. “How are you bearing up?”
“Well enough, butcher,” she said coldly. “All our families died because of you and your Schimrian. Even though you saved us, I still want to kill you. My name is Rabbit because ever since your plague and the Year of the Rats I have had no sweet childhood deserving of a Christian or even a human name.”
“Then I see reflected in you the divine madness that consumed us,” he sighed. “We were blinded by the sign of the seven-headed lamb as foretold in the Book of Revelation. I don’t care if you believe my intention to atone or not but I will save as many of you as I can before Satan drags my wretched soul down to Hell Eternal to continue a damnation I richly deserve.”
“We shall see,” she sniffed, turning to keep watch out of the window. “In the end, our Light-Father will be the one who decides whether you live or die.”
“I would like to meet this remarkable Light-Father of yours but you, Rabbit, have already decided that I should live for it was you who opened both my prison door and my heart back at the Great Abbey. You have given me my only chance of salvation just as you gave that same chance to young Brother Kai.”
“We thought you were a victim,” Rabbit said sharply. “We overheard that Schimrian’s thing, Pious, was going to kill you so we thought you were one of us. I may have but a few years but Mother Moss taught me well the meaning of irony.”
“Nevertheless, I am grateful for the chance to save my immortal soul,” Michael said and bowed deeply. “Thank you.”
Rabbit grimaced and returned to her vigil as Surl seated herself at the dining-table and spooned some of the tinned soup into her mouth. By a miracle, much of the food in the tins had not spoiled but she knew what a risk they were all taking as the tins were over six years old and many were covered in rust and mildew. “I had beautiful red hair once,” she sighed.
“I’m sorry, Surl, you had red hair?” he asked, perplexed.
“Yes, one of your Tally-men was told to smother me with a pillow on a bed. I had but three years then yet I was Unworthy in your eyes. Fria and Amos saved me. Fria stabbed him in the neck and Amos smashed his skull in with a sledgehammer until there was just this red… mess… full of sparks from the Guides.” She shuddered and stared into the bowl. “My hair fell out and I could not speak until the Light-Father cured me. Mother Moss tried to explain what was happening to me with all these visions but I am still too young to understand what my craft truly is.”
“You know the Order has regarded such powers as blasphemy for centuries. I see this is as arrogance now and probably a hatred of women as only they could sport such gifts.”
“You would still have me beaten and burnt at the stake!” Surl exploded, hurling the empty bowl at him. It missed and shattered against the wall. “What gave you the right to torture and kill women and girls just because they were different?”
“I will not lie to you: I regarded Mothers as witches; unholy abominations; foul harpies before God but now I realise that we were the real abominations in this world. I cannot undo such great evil but I can now do some good before I die.”
“Whatever you do, it will be a flea-bite compared to the death and suffering you have inflicted upon others.”
“You are right, Surl, but nevertheless this insect will try to save you all if he can.” He turned to her. “I am sorry to ask of you but can you confirm that the Light-Father will find us before the Brothers do? Can you consult your visions again?”
“I will try but it is getting painful to do this,” she sighed, her eyes unfocussing. “They are fighting in a little village by the causeway but your Angels cannot see them as they are above us.” She gasped and placed her head on her arms. “That’s all I can see: I am so tired of seeing so much blood.”
“The Angels are swinging to the west of us,” he noted after risking a peek through the doorway. “They know we’ll be exposed on the causeway so they may have reasoned that we’re heading towards the Nuncernig road or maybe Epstall.”
“I have seen this,” she sighed, raising her head. “As I told you when we got here this morning, at fifteen bells their attention will be fully diverted from us and we will have an opportunity to make it to the woods to the west and meet up with the Light-Father.”
He drew aside his robes to reveal two holsters with black guns in them. “These should make a difference if we are caught,” he said reassuringly. “The Brothers and Tall-men are not allowed to carry such weapons in the Holy Land of Britannia.”
Surl strapped her main weapon, a vicious and ultra-sharp machete, onto her back and adjusted her knives. “You cannot use those noisy toys just yet,” she said. “The gunshots will bring all the other Brothers down upon us and we will die.”
“As you wish,” he said impatiently. “We have half an hour before we make our move. May God protect us and bless us.”
“Like He protected the billions who died,” Rabbit snapped. “I don’t think so. If you bless me again, I will kill you.”
Michael looked at the murderous intent in the eyes of such a young girl and shook his head sadly. “God blesses whomsoever He desires,” he shrugged, wrapping his robes about himself again. He knew he stank and his skin itched horribly but he was now immortal thanks to his Order-nurtured genes and that infernal machine Azrael had thrust him into. He put his hands across his eyes and shuddered violently, the bile rising in his throat.
“All you can see in your mind are the knives and scalpels in that demon-machine,” Surl noted with little sympathy. “The Devil was thus turned loose upon His own.”
“You have no idea,” he said bleakly.
Saul had simply leapt over the wall with his katana drawn. The four black-coated Tally-men guarding the half-track had their backs to him as they impassively watched the destructive searches of the cottages opposite. The nearest Tally-man never saw or heard the tall, slim youth until a katana blade emerged just below his sternum. He looked down at the blade protruding from his chest for several seconds before his ruined brain registered that he was now dead. He let out a sound uncannily like a sigh of relief as he crumpled to the cobbles.
By the time Harold joined Saul with his own katana at the ready, the other three Tally-men had been slain by crossbow bolt, arrow and axe by Shield, Bas and Ibrahim respectively. “Great plan, Saul, next time let’s give a little more thought, shall we?”
Saul shrugged without reply and flicked the blood off his sword as from four cottage doorways opposite, more Tally-men and then Brothers appeared wearing black hooded robes that ended at the knee, black scapulas of the same length, black breeches, gaiters and boots. Finally, a large bearded man bearing the gold pectoral cross of the Fathers of the Order emerged from the end cottage.
“Well, well, look what we have here,” he laughed, drawing his side-arm. “Abominations, desecrators of our Lord’s statue and the killers of our brethren…” he choked off when he saw Fern’s attire and his face blanched with terror. “A Mother! A harlot of Satan!” he shrieked. “Brother Clegwyn! Get the begiuller from the half-track before she ensorcels us!”
He aimed his gun at Fern but she brought her staff down hard upon the cobbled street and from beneath the raving Father, the ground erupted sending him ten metres into the air spinning like a rag doll. “I am Mother Fern of the First Degree!” she shouted up at him. “I am a Servant of Gaia and a Wielder of Earth! Thou art one with the ghosts that scream for your soul. By the Triple Goddess, thou shalt defile this world no more!”
He slammed into the ground head-first and they clearly heard his neck and many other bones snap. He did not move again.
The Brothers and Tally-men were motionless for several seconds then the Tally-men readied their spears. Harold had hoped the Brothers would have run away but the sheer hatred on the faces was plain to see: they would kill them for daring to desecrate their Great Cathedral or die trying. Brother Clegwyn suddenly bolted for the open door at the rear of the half-track but he never made it: he collapsed gurgling to the ground, clawing at the shaft of the bolt embedded in his throat.
A quick-witted Brother used the distraction and pressed a button on the control device strapped to the dead Father’s arm. “Tally-men! Attack them!” he screamed, the spittle flying from his lips. “Brothers, use your dart guns! Do not fear the witch! We still outnumber them four to one!”
Bas darted forward with incredible speed to leap over the spear lunging at her and landed upon the Tally-man’s shoulders. She yanked his hood back as he tried to shake her off but her knife slashed through the wires connecting the metal guides in his skull to the power and guidance unit below the base of the neck. She leapt clear as sparks flew from the unit and the guides; the Tally-man convulsing violently until bloody sputum erupted from his mouth and he toppled backwards lifeless.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim had blocked a spear thrust and clamped the spear-head under his left armpit with his free hand. He grasped the shaft of the long spear, planted his feet firmly on the cobbles then heaved, lifting the Tally-man clean off his feet with just one arm. He released the spear and swung the axe in his right hand to catch the sprawling Tally-man full in the back of the neck almost cleaving the head from the body.
“For Fierce!” he yelled, grasping the huge axe in both hands and swinging at another Tally-man whose spear thrust missed his face by millimetres. He was dimly aware of the whip of darts flying past him yet he continued carving a bloody path through the ranks of the expressionless Tally-men.
Harold saw Shield concentrating and using her craft to deflect the darts from the guns of the dozen Brothers frantically firing at them. Many darts hit the Tally-men but they merely slowed these lobotomised warriors of the Order. Harold knew the Brothers also carried plasma-grenades and it would be only seconds before they recovered their wits enough to use them. He’d been hurled twenty metres by a plasma-grenade explosion in the Great Annexe and did not want to repeat the experience again.
As if reading his mind, Bas sprang onto the roof of the half-track and fired arrows relentlessly down at the Brothers many of whom had cast aside their dart-guns in disgust and were fumbling for grenades in their robe pockets. He wanted to engage them but two more Tally-men charged at him and he was nicked by spear tips several times before he could take one of them out and engage the second one. A roaring was growing louder in his ears but he could not decide if he was the one howling or whether some other creature was making this infernal noise.
Next to him, Saul and Ibrahim were silent; utterly focussed on their foes who seemed to him to be moving in slow-motion compared to these two remarkable Children of Exodus. He swung his sword like an axe but it was of such exquisite workmanship that he felt it had a will of its own, slicing off the Tally-man’s hand then thrusting through his ribs as if through gossamer.
Another wave rippled beneath his feet and the remaining seven Brothers were thrown to the ground. “I wish I knew how she does that!” he muttered as he blocked yet another spear thrust. He stepped forward and drove his blade easily through the coat and into the belly of the Tally-man then twisted it savagely. The Tally-man sank to his knees desperately trying to shovel his innards back into his torn abdomen. He looked up at Harold who saw a spark of humanity flicker in those eyes for one brief moment. “Finish me,” he begged, bowing his head. “Please!”
Without hesitation and fighting down a wave of nausea, Harold delivered the coup de grace; the head rolling away from him. Then he realised that all the Tally-men were dead and Shield, Bas, Saul and Ibrahim were already upon the hapless Brothers, five of whom were struggling to get to their feet. He watched in speechless horror, as knife, sword and axe rose and fell without hesitation; without mercy. He started at a hand being laid upon his shoulder and turned to see Fern with her eyes filled with tears.
“They know we have no choice but to kill or be killed, dear heart, but I weep for them,” she said. “Diana! What is that infernal racket? There! There be Angels!” she cried out.
Rising above the trees at the eastern end of the little hamlet were the black rotorcrafts of the Order. Harold could see the barrels of their huge chain-guns spinning and ground his teeth in helpless rage: “Oh, come on! You have got to be kidding me!”