UKArchive ID: 36456mitch
Originally published on April 22, 2016 in Fiction
Harold finds out more about this strange and desolate world and the grotesque Tally-men.
Fierce sat in the open doorway of the mail wagon with her legs dangling over the edge having become bored with the strange conversation between Saul and the Light-Father. She had her full thirteen years today so this was her birthday present to herself: to watch, still full of childish wonder, as a large flock of pigeons circled this way and that above the yard.
She sighed heavily as she gazed up at the grey sky and retied several of the rag strips in her matted hair. The drizzle had beaded everything including her eyelashes with drops of moisture but there was now a rare brightness to the western sky where the sun was trying to break through the clouds. She detested dry weather of any kind for that was when the Tally-men were at their most dangerous; breaking from their routine patrols to carry out sudden and unexpected sorties into the yard and across the city.
“Happy Birthday, Fierce,” Harold said as he sat awkwardly next to her. She wrinkled up her nose at the smell of oil, spirits and cigar-smoke still clinging to his peculiar clothes. “Saul has just introduced me to all the children and you’re the last. Your sisters won’t tell me your real name so Fierce will have to do even though you don’t look all that fierce to me.”
“Fierce is good,” she said simply and he blinked to find a sharp knife at his throat and the point of a thin sword pricking at the gap between two of his ribs. She returned them to their sheaths in two fluid motions then pointed up at a small speck circling high above the pigeons. “See? I am as fierce as that kestrel. Now,” she whispered hungrily, craning her head forward. “Kill!”
They watched the kestrel suddenly stoop and dive into the panicking pigeons. Predator and prey tumbled through the air in the fatal timeless embrace of the hunt before the kestrel righted itself with powerful wing-beats to bear its prize away. The panic-stricken flock quickly reformed and headed westwards.
Fierce wiped at a tear trickling down her grimy cheek. “They cannot speak but they must be sad,” she said quietly.
Harold thought his heart would break despite the shock of being threatened so casually by such a young girl. “Birds are practical creatures with small brains,” he said kindly. “They’re probably glad it wasn’t them but they know as long as the flock survives, one casualty will not make much of a difference to the species.”
“I suppose so,” she shrugged. “But surely it is better to be predator than prey, is it not?”
He knew that the three sisters had somehow survived in the city for almost two years but not even eleven-year-old Mouse would say what had happened to them except to say that they’d been rescued from the Tally-men by Mother Moss and brought here. “I wouldn’t know,” he said after a thoughtful silence. “Come inside by the stove, Fierce - you’re drenched - you’ll catch a cold.”
“No. I’m used to the rain but tell me: when I die, Light-Father,” she said, screwing up her face in disgust at the increasing daylight. “Will the sky cry for me? Will it miss me?”
“I think your sisters would,” he said gruffly to hide his feelings. “Tell me, what happened to the three of you out there?”
She shook her head, her eyes haunted. “I remember a party,” she said wistfully. “The year before the great plague when I had my six years, there was this wonderful party in the garden with grilled meats for the adults who drank mead and beer and sang funny songs to me. There was a play-tent for us children. I remember how hot the sun was then – it’s rained since everyone died. It’s getting colder every year but if it ever starts to snow, Ibrahim says it will go on forever.” She looked down at her feet. “Am I bad person, Light-Father? I can remember the presents and Mouse eating so much that she was sick and Shield, being the eldest, scolding her… but I can’t remember the faces of our parents.”
“I’m no psychologist, Fierce,” he said, undoing his utility belt. “Ah, that’s better! But if you were attacked by the Order and they killed your parents and you lived on the run for two years, all these shocks will blank everything out including their faces but, trust me, they will return to you in time. I think you three sisters have something that we call post-traumatic stress. Many soldiers where I come from suffered from this for years after the wars were over: they’d have nightmares; their moods would change suddenly and they would become very violent.”
“I see – so we’re all soldiers,” she said simply, edging closer to him. “So will you be leaving us now?”
“I don’t think I can, Fierce,” he said, scratching at his cheek as his sideburns were itching in the humid warmth. “I’m either in a mental institution or I’m in a parallel reality - this isn’t my world or even my language so I guess I’ll have to stay with you until I can figure out how Mother Moss brought me here.”
“But if you aren’t from Heaven, you cannot be from another world, Light-Father, for you speak like a Middle-City man,” she retorted as she studied the treacherously thinning clouds.
“I’m not from this world Fierce. I don’t even know how I can speak and understand your language - I think it was programmed into me like a computer which is why I have this damn headache. I haven’t got a clue how she did that because there are no Wiccans like her in my world,” he admitted with a wry smile. “Oh, we do have Wiccans but they’re all sad old bats who think dancing naked around a black candle is a cure for cancer. If I hadn’t seen that hell-light before with my own eyes, I would have taken all this with a pinch of salt,” he said sweeping a hand across the rail-yard and the ranks of rotting cars and vans.
“What do you mean by a hell-light?” she said, drawing her knees up and resting her chin upon them. “I think you are teasing me about coming from another world. It is not possible. You must have come from Heaven if Mother Moss brought you to us.”
He sighed and rubbed at his eyes wearily. “Trust me, I haven’t come from Heaven, Fierce, but another world much like this one with its own wars and disasters,” he shrugged. “Some of our scientists believe that millions and millions of realities exist side by side and obviously they were right because here I am. I was very lonely there because all I do all day is fix machines in a workshop. I only go home to my empty flat if I can get drunk enough to fall asleep quickly. I have no family left.”
“Huh? Do you not have children, Light-Father?”
His hands clenched until the knuckles were white and he drew a deep shuddering breath. “I had a little daughter called Naomi but she died in her cot. She was… she had nine months when it happened. We woke up one morning and there she was - my beautiful angel - looking as though she was just fast asleep with a smile on her sweet face. My wife, Andrea, picked her up but then she screamed because Naomi was as cold as ice…”
“I see,” Fierce said quietly. “Your wife was not strong so she blamed you for the death and not herself or Fate for allowing the child to stop breathing in the night. You are better off without her. Maybe this is why Mother Moss brought you to us.”
“She said as much,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Apparently, she wants me to save you all so that I can forget about Naomi and Andrea. It’s my destiny she said. I…”
“Shhh!” she hissed, clamping a hand on his leg. She reached down to unsheathe her wicked-looking hunting knife and rapped the hilt on the doorframe three times. “They’re here!”
“Who the hell is h…?” he said before Shield came up behind him and clamped a filthy hand across his mouth. He almost gagged as all the children stank and the sweat from her sudden fear made Sheild’s stench unbearable. He noticed a long knife in her other hand and he could hear the younger children were all busy extinguishing the stove and the candles.
“Be quiet and get out of sight, Light-Father,” she whispered into his ear. “May Lucifer burn me for this - it was my turn to keep watch behind the gates. On the far side of the cars by the last engine shed over there – can you see them?”
Harold got up and retreated into the dark as Fierce drew her sword. He shielded his eyes and gazed in the direction Shield was pointing. “I see them. I take it that those are Tally-men?”
“Yes! I want to kill them!” Fierce hissed but Shield grabbed her by the collar and dragged her bodily away from the door.
Harold watched as five large men flitted from cover to cover one after the other. They wore long black hooded leather greatcoats over their black clothes and boots. Saul tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a small pair of field-glasses so that he could see that the Tally-men were all bald and carried fearsome-looking spears - long jet-black staffs with a blade at one end and a spike at the other. A sudden beam of bright sunlight bathed them and reflected off something metallic attached to their skulls just before they were lost to sight behind the engine-sheds.
“Will they approach these wagons?” he whispered anxiously.
“Yes,” Shield whispered back. “Saul will lay the tin on the tracks in front of us and we will close the door so that they can’t see us. They opened the tin the first time but Mother Moss taught them a lesson. They’re not intelligent but they always remember the pain she gave them - they’re terrified of her.”
“I hope this still works,” Saul said as he jumped down onto the tracks to place the black tin ten metres in front of the wagon. He climbed back up to snuff out the last candle and check that the fire was out as Shield slowly closed the sliding door behind him.
“Even though they come at different times when it’s dry, they always follow the same patrol route that the Fathers gave them,” Fierce explained, getting to her feet and glaring at her sister. “They’ve already checked the site office on the other side of the gates, they’ll walk through the four repair sheds and the stores then they’ll check the forges and the smithy and finally they check the offices where you appeared.”
“Then they walk along the path on the other side of these sidings and back through the gate,” Shield added. “They know we’re here but it’s best if they don’t see us or hear us.”
“Why do they go away?” he asked. “Surely they would have seen the stove-smoke from the other side of the wall?”
“Yes, they do,” she said. “But they never show any initiative to investigate because they are not made that way. All they are told to do is capture plague survivors and take them to the Great Abbey. They’re still very dangerous which is why we close the wagon door and wait in the dark – they only take fifteen minutes to circle the sheds and offices and then they head on into the city.”
“What do you mean by ‘not made that way’?” he demanded irritably. He felt claustrophobic in the fetid dark, the choking smell made worse by the heat and the terror coursing through twelve unwashed bodies. He noted every child was holding a weapon in their hands and some had two. “Are these guys zombies?”
He could see Shield frown as she peered through one of the knot-holes in the door. “Zom-bees?” she said. “I know not this word. No, they are merely the Unworthy. As Light-Father you should know that they are the failed novices and prisoners of the Order who have been made into Tally-Men. They have certain parts of their brains removed so that they will obey the instructions the Fathers give them through their Guides.”
“What do you mean by Guides, Shield? I didn’t see anyone guiding them out there.”
“No, the Guides are metal devices,” Saul said quietly as he too came to the door – a thin shaft of light illuminating part of his face. “They are driven into their skulls. It’s why they hate the rain – even with their hoods up, the Guides hiss and crackle and cause them agony when they get wet. Now be quiet, Light-Father – they’re outside. I pray they don’t realise Mother Moss is gone.”
Harold peered through the remaining spy-hole as one of the younger children whimpered in terror behind him. The five Tally-men had finished their rounds, their black leather coats flapping in the rising breeze as they strode along the path towards the gates. They were in single-file and his heart missed a beat as they stopped suddenly at an unspoken command and turned as one to face the wagon. They were only twenty metres away and he could see that all five men were expressionless and in the centre of their foreheads and on each temple were the Guides, glinting in the late afternoon sunlight now streaming across the yard.
The five Tally-men readied their weapons and stepped across the unkempt grass and weeds until they halted at the empty siding tracks. Harold watched in morbid fascination as their eyes fixed upon the tin and they began a most peculiar dance – walking forward one after another only to double over suddenly, their heads thrust forwards to utter wordless howls of fear and loathing before retreating backwards to the path. The youngest of the five was the most animated and the sounds he made were deeply disturbing – almost screams of anguish and loss. This went on for about ten minutes as the younger children cowered in sheer terror in the dark with their hands pressed over their ears.
Then suddenly it stopped and the Tally-men formed up into a single line to march through the gates without a backward glance. Saul turned to the others. “Be at peace,” he declared, opening the door to let the welcome light flood in. Three children remained huddled up on the floor and were crying, their tears leaving clear tracks down their filthy cheeks. “Shhh! They’re gone for today. Go to your caravans and rest, all of you. We’ve not eaten for two days so we must search for food as soon as it’s dark.”
“I don’t want to,” Mouse protested as she ran into Shield’s protective embrace. “That’s when the Tally-men get us!”
“We haven’t lost anyone for a long time, Mouse,” Saul assured her, sheathing his knife. “Not since I’ve been Elder and now we have the Light-Father with us.”
“I’ll come with you,” Harold said, gazing thoughtfully at the huge metal gates. “Where do you get the food from?”
“We go to where the big shops are,” Saul said, pointing to the piles of metal scrap on the other side of the gates. “We hide the tins in there so that the Fathers and the Tally-men do not see them.”
“Aren’t the shops and stores of food watched? You can’t take all these children foraging into the city with you after dark,” Harold protested. “Surely it would be safer to leave them here?”
“My cousin, David, was Elder,” Saul said, shaking his head. “But shortly after Mother Moss died, we left the youngest here in one of the caravans while we went searching for food. They were attacked by Ferals and David’s brother and sister, Eliza and Jacob, were taken but we do not know what happened to them.”
“Ah I’m sorry but what are ‘Ferals’ – and why does that word sound so strange?” Harold muttered, rubbing at his brow. The pain vanished and he smiled down at the children who were filing out to their caravans and touching his overalls for luck on the way out. One of them handed him his utility belt. “Thank you, Amos. Okay, Saul, what are Ferals? Are they dogs? I assume all the cats and dogs have gone wild since the plague.”
“We still have packs of wild dogs but they are not as dangerous as the Ferals,” Saul said grimly. “Ferals are children who survived the plague but the Fathers and the Brothers ignore them as they are genetically damaged. They don’t even bother killing them as they consider them to be nothing more than animals.”
“So where is your cousin now?”
“David never forgave himself and he searched for his missing siblings night and day but one day in February, he was returning from the woods when he was captured by the Tally-men.”
“Then what happened to him? What does the Order do to the people that they capture? Ah, I take it that they would consider him to be one of the ‘Unworthy’ then?”
“Yes. Do you remember the youngest of the Tally-men?”
“You mean the strange one that was really howling?”
“That was David.”
(c) Paul D. E. Mitchell
Archived comments for Chapter 03: Fierce Has Thirteen
Mikeverdi on 25-04-2016
Chapter 03: Fierce Has Thirteen
WOW 😀😀😀 This is building into a great story. On to the next episode.
Ps. I know Kestrels, they are small birds that hunt small mammals and insects. May need to change to hawk or falcon.