UKArchive ID: 36551mitch
Originally published on May 23, 2016 in Fiction
Chapter 12 of the Light-Father: The Tally-men threaten the Keep and a starving pack of dogs sniff them out - will Harold's trick work? Will the children be able to fight off sixty starving dogs?
In the gloom of the mail-wagon, every knothole in the front door and wall was silently fought over as the Scatterlings vied to watch their daily nightmare. All too soon, the Tally-men in their swirling black coats had completed their regular patrol around the yard and were marching in single file along the path between the offices and the grass verge that led back to the gates. As Harold had feared, they all halted at some unspoken command and turned to the left in unison to stare at the mail-wagon and slam the spikes on the base of their spears into the tarmac. Harold felt as though those five pairs of dead eyes were gazing directly at him.
One of them stepped forward and pointed his spear at the box but even from the mail-wagon, they could see that the Tally-man was quaking with fear.
“Our head is working. Heh! Look at his face – he looks like he might wet his pants!” Rabbit said proudly only to be shushed by Shield. “Sorry, I forgot.”
“Everyone be quiet,” Shield hissed then she switched on the microphone. “Take one step closer and I will make you suffer,” she growled into the microphone with such venom that even Harold found the hairs standing up on the back of his neck.
He was pleased to see that she’d worked the lock-motor switch in perfect time with the warning. He put his eye to the knothole and saw the Tally-man scuttling backwards at great speed to rejoin the others. Then his heart sank. David came forward with his spear at the ready to begin his strange and macabre dance. His wordless howls of loss and anguish made their blood run cold.
The younger children whimpered and huddled together in the gloom and pressed their hands to the ears for the thing screaming in anguish outside had been one of them a mere seven months ago. He got far closer to the tin than the other Tally-man had and fell silent, peering closely at its contents with a puzzled frown upon his face.
Shield flicked the switch that lit up the eyes and Harold saw David suddenly stagger away, covering his eyes and mewling with fear. “David Dis, your blessed mother, Ethelwyn, would turn in her grave at what you’ve become,” she moaned theatrically. “For Leo, Jana, Eliza and Jacob, never darken this place again!”
David sank to his knees at the names of his brothers and sisters and dropped his spear to claw at his face. Two Tally-men strode forward and quickly hauled him to his feet and dragged him into line while a third darted forward to retrieve the spear. As soon as he had rejoined the line, David’s face became expressionless and he automatically accepted his weapon. The five then turned as one to face the gate and marched on out as if nothing had happened.
“Well done, Shield,” Harold approved warmly, clapping her on the shoulder. “You’re a gifted actress.”
“Thank you,” she said sadly, switching off the microphone and getting to her feet. She chewed at her lower lip for a moment and shook her head. “He remembered his family, Light-Father. For one second there, he remembered.”
“I saw. I wish I knew why they do that,” he muttered. “One second, they’re all curious and the next they’re robots again.”
“They are completely controlled by the Guides,” Saul explained. “They have to be at certain points in their patrol at certain times and that program overrides whatever they’re doing at any given moment. They simply forget and move on – their brains have been all but surgically destroyed, don’t forget.”
“When it is drier, they are programmed to patrol at random intervals,” Ibrahim added, still gazing through his knothole. “The Order assumes that nothing moves in heavy rain so they hope to catch survivors on the move in the drier weather. They will always follow the same patrol pattern unless a Father is present – then they get really dangerous because the Fathers have devices that control them directly. The Fathers don’t come here very often because they have a whole world to Inquire of and many more survivors to butcher even though Schimrian knows we’re here.”
“Either we’re not worth killing or he’s forgotten about us after killing Mother Moss and beheading her,” Shield pointed out. She moved the table aside and slid open the door. “I’d better get the tin back inside before the rain gets into the wiring.”
“Be careful not to tug at the wires leading into the back of the tin,” Harold warned as she jumped down. He turned to find Saul looking haggard and gazing into the middle-distance with tears in his eyes. He placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “You couldn’t save your cousin, Saul,” he said kindly. “You can’t spend the rest of your life carrying that guilt upon your shoulders. You have these others to lead and look after in his name.”
“He was the best of us,” Saul sighed heavily. “Yet he was fated to lose his parents, his two brothers, his two sisters and now he has lost himself. If he and the Tally-men ever attacked this Keep, I still don’t think I could kill him even if he was trying to kill me, Light-Father. Despite everything, I believe that David is still alive somewhere inside that black coat. I saw his face just now - I have to believe in God that a part of him still lies beyond the reach of the Guides and the scalpels of the Fathers.”
Fierce took his arm and cradled it. “Then I’ll kill him for you,” she promised. “Because I can see what your love cannot – David is lost to us. He is nothing more than a brainless Tally-man who would kill or capture every one of us.”
Saul placed a hand upon her head, seemingly forgetting that Harold was watching them closely. “Bless you, Fierce,” he said gently. “I regret that I may have to place that burden upon you - one day, you may have to do what I can not.”
Harold was beginning to appreciate Saul’s instinctive leadership qualities and thinking back to his school and college days when Bas suddenly crouched in the open doorway and sniffed at the air. He felt distinctly uneasy at the way her ears twitched upon her head and wondered at the chilling callousness of a man who saw nothing wrong in experimenting on his own children.
“What’s the matter, Bas?” Ibrahim said, readying his axe. “What can you sense out there?”
“Come in quickly, Shield,” she urged, standing up and notching an arrow to her bow. “I smell Feral.”
Shield placed the tin and wires on the floor of the wagon and quickly climbed in to retrieve her cross-bow. “How many?” she demanded. “I didn’t hear a thing.”
“Only one I think. He’s watching us from the canteen roof for some reason. Why is there only one, Light-Father?” she asked turning to Harold. “They always hunt in packs.”
Harold was about to answer when Shield shot him a warning glance and he nodded at her. Suddenly, dogs starting barking and baying on the other side of the wall. “Speaking of packs, Saul,” he said nervously. “It sounds like our canine friends are hungry again. I had hoped they’d move on.”
“It’s to be expected,” Saul shrugged. “There’s no food for them in the city except us. I have no idea why they’re hunting here – there’s plenty of deer and boar roaming the woods.”
“M-maybe they want to eat me,” Pup wailed, clinging to Fria who comforted him. “Bad dogs! They ate poor Leo and Jana – maybe they like Pup more than deer!”
“I won’t let them hurt you,” Bas promised and leapt from the back door threshold onto the caravan roof. She was back in seconds, looking extremely worried. “At least sixty,” she reported. “They know we’re here - they’re approaching the gates.”
Saul unsheathed his sword and stared at Harold. “We lost Leo and Jana to these mongrels,” he said, more to himself than Harold. “I will not lose another child to fang and Feral!”
“No, we’ll be hunting them for a change,” Amos grinned, patting his sledgehammer. “About time – I hated it when you and David made us run away and leave Leo and Jana.”
Harold saw Saul’s knuckles whiten on the hilt of his sword but Ibrahim surprised Harold by suddenly grasping the front of Amos’s tunic and lifting the sneering teenager clean off the floor. “Are you calling David a coward?” he said dangerously, his face close to that of the scarred youth. “Are you that tired of life?”
“N-n-no,” Amos stammered. “I meant no disrespect to his memory, Ibrahim. W-we had to run! We had to!”
“Yes, we did, Amos,” Ibrahim said, slowly lowering him. “We were caught in the open and we were carrying youngsters. We made a terrible mistake taking everyone to search for food. We all thought that the dogs had gone back into the woods…”
“…and now they’re back,” Shield interrupted. “We have no choice but to kill them all. If we just drive them off, they could ambush us again when we’re looking for food.”
“Thank God they’re coming at us in daylight,” Harold declared, drawing his sword. “We have to hold them at the gates - we’ll be under siege in the Keep if we let them get into the yard. Luckily, the gates are set back from the road so we can corral them between the entrance walls while Shield and Bas shoot down at them from the tops of the caravans.”
“As David said: try not to die,” Saul said sombrely as Pup began to whimper and Rabbit squeezed Surl’s hand so hard that it made the bald girl yelp with pain. He turned to Shield and Bas as more baying sounded closer to the gates. “It’s up to you two to shoot all those at the rear while we take out those at the front.”
Peter grabbed his knife and was about to jump down when Saul stopped him. “No, Peter,” he said angrily. “You must heal before you fight – you and Surl will protect Rabbit and Pup and guard this door with your lives, understand? I’m counting on you. We’ll have to leave it half-open in case we have to retreat from the gates.”
“I’m coming too,” Mouse said angrily. “I’ve been practising really hard with my knives and my spear.”
“No,” Shield said firmly. “You’re staying with Peter.”
“That’s not fair! Fierce is going and I want to fight! Dogs killed Leo and Jana and they were my best friends!”
Shield knelt and cupped her sister’s face in her hands. “I won’t be able to aim if I’m worried about you at the gates, little sister. Please help Peter protect the others – they’re frightened.”
“Oh, all right,” Mouse relented, standing her spear upright. “We won’t let a single dog cross this threshold, will we, Surl?”
Surl nodded gravely and patted her machete.
“Good for you, Surl,” Harold approved as he climbed down. “Don’t worry, Peter,” he promised. “I have some ideas on how to improve your claw and get you fighting fit again.”
“Let’s go,” Saul urged as Bas leapt up onto the caravan roof closely followed by Shield who used the ladder. “Light-Father is right - if they get into the yard, we’ll be trapped in here.”
The bolder dogs were already at the gate entrance, sniffing eagerly for scents despite the light rain drifting down. They crouched and growled as Harold, Ibrahim, Amos, Fria, Fierce and Saul quickly formed a line across the entrance and barred their way.
“Don’t let any get through or they’ll take you down from behind,” Saul shouted, readying his sword. “Bas, Shield, I know the light’s fading but get as many at the back as you can! I don’t know what’s got into these dogs but this does not feel natural…”
“You’re right - it’s like they’re possessed,” Harold observed, grasping his sword by the hilt. Suddenly, he felt nothing like a hero – just a podgy technician in overalls and a baseball cap clutching a samurai sword and facing sixty wild dogs!
He had no time to think about it as the pack surged forward and he was forced to frantically swing his sword around like a club with the razor-sharp edge making up for his total lack of skill. Arrows and bolts thrummed through the air and whines and yelps marked the finding of targets. He saw that dreadful smile on Amos’s face as the teenager surged forward, swinging his sledgehammer in whirling arcs but in doing do, he left a large gap in the line and three dogs immediately raced through into the yard.
“Get back in line, you idiot!” Saul roared as he plunged his sword into the throat of a large black wolfhound. “Light-Father, do something – he’s got two at his heels!”
Harold saw Fierce living up to her name as with both hands, she fearlessly jabbed her slender sword into throats and hearts. Ibrahim punched one hound on the top of the head, driving it into the ground before whirling around and virtually slicing his next attacker in two with his double-headed axe. However, Amos was in trouble with three in front of him and two more snapping at his hamstrings. Descendants of pampered pets they may have been but the instincts of the wolf served them well - Amos already had one severe bite to the back of his thigh as he flailed about with his hammer in vain as the dogs were keeping out of range.
Harold swung his sword with all his might and dispatched both dogs behind Amos with two blows and then dragged the teenager back into the line. “Concentrate!” he bellowed, feeling the blood singing in his own ears. With a start, he realised that he’d never felt so alive. “We still have another thirty to go!”
“Why aren’t they running away?” Fria demanded as she blinded a dog with a double thrust of her long knives. “They should be running away by now but not one of them is leaving. It’s like when Leo and Jana died - the dogs then didn’t seem to care if they died or not!” She thrust a knife into the blinded dog’s throat and was spattered with arterial blood as arrows and bolts rained down about them with deadly accuracy.
Finally, it was over but not one animal had fled the carnage which worried Harold immensely. He stood there panting along with the children as they stared at the piles of corpses before them.
“Are you alright, Light-Father?” Bas shouted down from the wall. She started as the youngsters in the mail-wagon screamed.
“Get back to them, Bas!” he shouted. “Three dogs got past us and they might not have closed the door in time!”
They raced to the mail-wagon with their hearts in their mouths where they found one large dog pacing in circles by the open door, blinded and obviously in great agony. Saul despatched it with one sweep of his sword and vaulted up into the wagon to find a large dog still alive but immobilised by Mouse’s spear and knives protruding from its flanks. In the corner, they found her clutching at bite wounds to her shoulder with Surl standing over the corpse of the third dog, her bloodied machete in her hands.
Harold and Shield rushed over to see to Mouse who was smiling bravely up them but Harold could see that she was as white as a sheet and trembling with shock then he saw Peter on the floor behind one of the tables, clutching at his stump.
“Saul, see to Peter,” he ordered. “I think he’s just winded.” There was a crunch as Amos crushed the skull of the second dog with his sledgehammer. “Quickly, Shield, get her onto the table - she’s losing a lot of blood. She needs that wound disinfected and stitched up. Pup, get me the blue box off that shelf, please.”
“Yes, Light-Father,” the boy said eagerly as Harold and Shield laid Mouse on the table and removed her jacket. Pup placed the box on the table and Harold immediately extracted a pair of surgical scissors to cut away Mouse’s shirt and expose the wounds.
“Damn it, these bites went deep,” he muttered as the children gathered around. “There’s nothing you can do,” he told them. “I want you to drag these dogs out and get all the other corpses out of sight as far away from the Keep as possible. Throw them over the walls if you can but keep the two biggest dogs.”
“What for, Light-Father?” Bas demanded with a puzzled frown on her face. “We have to get rid of them all because the Tally-men will find them or we’ll have thousands of rats everywhere.”
“I’m cooking them, Bas,” Harold explained. “I have to build your strength up if we are ever going to leave this place. Surl and Rabbit? I want you to hold her down while I clean the wound. She’s going to struggle like hell but keep her still for me.”
“What about me, Light-Father?” Amos pleaded, displaying the bites to his left leg. “I was bitten too. I’m bleeding.”
“Mouse got hurt because you broke the line,” Fierce said angrily, pointing her bloodied sword at him.
“Enough!” Harold snapped. “We will talk about this later. I will treat you after Mouse, Amos. Saul? How is Peter?”
“He’s okay, he banged the stump when he was knocked over,” Saul said, patting the boy’s head. “The youngsters did well.”
“They did indeed. Pup stays with us but I want the rest of you to clean your weapons then get rid of all these dead dogs. Now! Move, all of you! Yes, you too, Peter! Go!”
They looked at him open-mouthed for a second before obeying without a word. “You, Amos,” he said curtly. “Hold her feet. We haven’t got any anaesthetic. I’m sorry, Mouse, but this is going to sting. Rabbit, is there any hot water on the stove?”
“Sorry, Light-Father,” Pup apologised. “I threw it all into the face of the first dog because it went for Mouse. She was very brave - she stuck the spear and her knives into the second dog as it jumped up but the third dog was on her but Rabbit and Peter stabbed it then Surl killed it with her machete!”
“That was quick thinking, Pup,” he grinned.
“Pup was… very brave,” Mouse said slowly.
“Keep still while I clean the wounds with this disinfectant,” Harold said, handing her a small stick. “You’ll need to bite on this. By a miracle, we’ve got some sterile sutures so I can stitch them up but they are going to leave scars, Mouse, I’m sorry.”
“So I’m getting scars to match Amos, am I?” she said bravely then she clamped her teeth on the stick and nodded.
Amos leant forward and surprised them all by squeezing her hand. “I promise I won’t ever tease you again, Mouse,” he said as she writhed on the table. He was hard put to stop her legs flailing about. “You’re far braver than me,” he added gallantly.
Harold saw Surl’s jaw drop as she watched her brother’s face. He paused from cleaning the wounds to see real tears in the eyes of a boy he had just dismissed as a hopeless sociopath. “There - the wounds are sterilised, Mouse, and it didn’t get any major veins or arteries so God was watching over you. I need you to be really strong for me as I’m going to stitch the wounds now. I haven’t had much practice at this but I’ll do my best, I promise.”
It took twenty minutes and over fifty stitches until Harold was finally satisfied yet Mouse did not scream once. “You need to take antibiotics for ten days to stop any infection setting in,” he told her, trying to keep dark thoughts about rabies and tetanus out of his mind. “You’ll have to stay in here and keep dry and warm until these heal so we’ll make you up another bed by the stove so you can sleep next to Fria and Rabbit tonight.”
“Th-thank you,” she mumbled as Harold carefully bandaged her shoulder and upper arm. “But I did well, yes?”
“You did well,” he assured her. Rabbit went to fetch a blanket as he laid her on some cushions by the stove and made her take two antibiotic tablets with some water. He put two large pots of water on the stove to boil as Rabbit placed the blanket over her. He didn’t tell them but he was deeply worried about Mouse as she drifted off to sleep in the rosy glow of the fire blazing in the belly of the stove.
“Now you, Amos,” he said briskly. “Drop your pants.”
The teenager blushed crimson. “Not in f-front of the girls,” he stammered. “It’s embarrassing.”
“Not as embarrassing as gangrene,” Harold snapped. “Girls, look away, please.”
There were several bites that had drawn blood but nothing as serious as Mouse’s injuries. However, Amos yelped despite his best efforts as the antiseptic was applied and the wounds dressed.
“You were lucky, Amos,” Harold said grimly as the red-faced teenager pulled up his pants. “You let bloodlust get the better of you and put these young ones in grave danger. Mouse could have died – you owe her one hell of an apology.”
Amos bowed his head and bit his lip. “I-I’m sorry, Mouse,” he said miserably. “It will not happen again.”
Surl hugged him but the return hug was only half-hearted and Harold sighed – Amos still had a long way to go but it was a start. “Right, it’s getting dark and I’ve got two big dogs to skin, gut, chop to bits and cook,” he declared, rubbing his hands.
“Yuk! We’re not eating dog, are we?” Pup protested.
“It’s better than them eating us,” Amos replied wryly.
Harold had used the large pots to boil up as much dog meat as he could to make a broth with herbs, tinned carrots and potatoes but it was almost dark by the time the others had finished disposing of the corpses. Wearily, they all sat at the table and ate their meal without comment but afterwards, encouraged by Saul, they relaxed and began to talk about their epic battle as Shield and Fierce tended to Mouse and made her eat some more of the broth.
Suddenly, a gust of bitter wind flowed through the mail-wagon and all the candles guttered and flared. They fell silent as six measured knocks sounded upon the closed door. Harold and Saul drew their swords, Ibrahim readied his axe and Shield aimed her crossbow as Amos pulled the door open - but no-one was there.
Something in the dark glinted in the candlelight so Harold went carefully to the threshold to investigate. He started as he saw a silver swan seemingly floating in the air before him, its ruby eyes glittering. “Come here, Shield, you need to see this.”
“What is it?” she demanded nervously as she joined him.
“I think the Feral left you a message,” he whispered.
Shield’s eyes widened and she gasped for thrust into the ground before her was the black staff of Mother Moss.
(c) Paul D. E. Mitchell 2012 2013
Archived comments for Chapter 12: Fang and Feral
Mikeverdi on 24-05-2016
Chapter 12: Fang and Feral
The story moves on, still retains my interest and enjoyment. I would never normally read this style of book, I may have to think again 😁
Thanks, Mike. Even though this has been published by me, ahem, I am still posting it as it it forcing me to address minor continuity and dialogue errors. Glad you are enjoying it as it is my best work thus far. Not much time to compose poetry though I do the odd gig and write the odd song now and again. Mitch.