Authors: Justin DePaoli
© 2016 by Justin DePaoli
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
for my parents, who have always encouraged and supported me.
and cold rain and yapping crows do not make for a happy assassin. All I’d wanted to do was come here and commend my brother’s corpse for being a good boy and staying put, unlike other corpses on Mizridahl. And then I’d find a tavern and take a couple mugs of ale to the face while I forgot all about the gossip of grave robbers.
Instead, I stood before an empty grave near a crow who didn’t know how to shut the fuck up.
There was supposed to be a body here. I remembered this particular place very well, because I’d stood here and shoveled through three feet of wet mud in order to bury my brother. And it seemed that sometime between then and now, either he’d been reintroduced into the world of the living, or someone had taken his corpse.
Neither of those two options brought me joy. Anton wasn’t the only victim, though. When I’d hightailed it out of this slaver camp seven months ago, crunchy stalks of grass had loomed tall over a bunch of twisted limbs and bloodied bodies. Mostly slavers, and a handful of slaves who’d gotten themselves caught between the Black Rot’s swords. But now? The land was as spotless as a pie pan after Braddock Glannondil got through with it.
The crow cawed at me again, from within a dying tree whose leaves had been stripped.
I crouched down and inspected a wagon wheel faintly imprinted in the mud. Could’ve been the grave robber I’d very much wanted to talk to. Or, just as likely, a passing tradesman. Since I wasn’t trained to sniff out trails like a hound, this detail wasn’t any help.
But I had trained myself to drink and to hold conversation with drunks and to be merry, and there was a tavern within twenty miles of here. Gossip about grave robbers travels quickly, as I’d already discovered, so I got back on my horse and rode toward the swamp. After crossing it, I eventually came to a busy village that sold anything you could ever want and would quickly procure what they didn’t have.
At least, that’s what the guy who asked how much I wanted for my saddlebags told me.
The tavern straddled two rock ledges. A short, suspended walkway of stone connected you to either side. Only place to drink to your fill between Vereumene and Crest Point, the barkeep claimed. I knew for a fact that wasn’t true, but I don’t argue with those who provide me ale.
Tables filled in as night drew darker in the East, and before long you couldn’t shuffle your feet to go outside and take a piss without bumping into shoulders and elbows. Even got a face full of damp beard at one point.
Wooden mugs thudded off tables. Deep-bellied men ho-ho-hoed, and some hee-hawed, and some shrieked with laughter. By midnight, there’d been two fights, a man who’d shat himself, a woman who’d bared it all on a bet, and a talking bird. A sticky dew of ale and questionable liquids glistened along the floor, sucking at boots as the drunks wobbled out into the warmth of an overly hot summer night.
I hadn’t heard a bloody thing about grave robbers. Heard lots about a good-for-nothin’ fat uncle, a tanner who couldn’t tan his own hide, and a whole host of other complaints. But nothing about corpse digging.
And then the door shuddered, and steel clangored, and in walked a troop of heavily armored men who, if I had to guess, were in charge of transporting their lord’s entire arsenal of weaponry. Each carried three swords, the heavy sheaths dragging down their belts like a drooping branch of soggy pine needles. They wore furs and leathers and mail. Plate was strapped around their shins and wrists, and leather skullcaps covered their heads. Personally, I’d have opted for steel on my head and leather elsewhere, but these guys didn’t look the type to put much emphasis on thought.
The fat one threw his weight around, knocking into stools. He dragged an empty table out from the wall, its legs screeching across the floor, and had himself a seat. The others joined him, and they all ordered ale and stuffed their mouths with piping-hot bread fresh from the hearth.
As they drank, they talked about nabbing a corpse fucker. Intrigued, I grabbed a chair, placed it by the big man and nodded my head.
“Corpses and fuckin’,” I said, “I hear that right?”
“Who the fuck’re you?” the fat man said. His knuckles turned white around the handle of his mug.
“Someone interested in dissecting grave robbers. So did I hear you right?”
“We’re gettin’ ourselves one tonight,” the young man across put in. His nose curved one way and pointed the other, and one of his eyes rather floated about aimlessly.
The fat man grasped the wool draping my arm and shook me to attention. “I asked who the fuck’re you?”
“They call me the Shepherd.”
“Shepherd?” Lazy Eye asked. “What d’ya shepherd? Sheep?”
I leaned back and stuck my thumbs inside my coat, peeling it away from my belt. “Boys, do I look like I shepherd sheep? I’m a hired blade. Been asked to off the head of a grave robber ’round these parts. You know of him?”
The fat man stabbed a finger into his chest and said, “He’s
“I prefer working smart,” I said, “not hard. By all means, bathe your hands in all the blood you want, but do you mind if I tag along? I like to confirm my kills. Reputation is everything, after all.”
The three mulled this proposal over, trading glances and shifty brows.
“Another sword can’t hurt,” said the one who’d been silent so far.
“What’re you bein’ paid?” asked the fat one.
“Eight coins,” I said. Since I wasn’t actually being paid shit and I knew exactly what kind of leverage he was vying for, I wasn’t about to cheat myself out of more money than I needed to.
“Gold?” he asked.
“I don’t work for silver.”
“Then we want half. Fair’s fair, for takin’ you along.”
“Hard bargainers, hmm? Fine. Four coins for the three of you.”
The fat man stared hard into my eyes. “Upfront.”
“First, you’ll tell me your plan. I need to make sure I’m getting my money’s worth out of you.”
The scowl on his face deepened, then he laughed and took a big gulp of ale, using his beard to wipe off his mouth. “Been plottin’ this corpse fucker’s stealings since my boy’s body gone missing from his grave. Every ninth night, he makes a pass through the gravelands up north a little ways. That’s when the bodies go missin’. Just before dawn is what we figure. Gravekeeper makes his rounds till ’bout that time, then shacks up for the morning.”
I fingered the purse inside my pocket, then tossed four gold coins onto the table.
The fat man smiled, revealing a face full of crowded yellow teeth. “Name’s Chipper. That there’s Gimmon, and—”
“Quip,” said the lazy-eyed one.
“Well, Chipper, Gimmon and Quip — we’ve got ourselves a few hours before we need to depart. Let’s drink. It’s on me.”
I flagged down a bar hand and ordered the table four mugs of the strongest stuff this place had. As the bar hand scampered back the way he came, behind Chipper, Gimmon and Quip, I excused myself to take a piss.
I touched the bar hand’s shoulder and whispered, “Nine parts water, one part ale for me.” I slipped ten coins into his hand and went outside to relieve myself.
When I came back, Chipper was going on about how the mugs here were too small. I told him you can only bitch about that kind of thing if you manage to take an entire mugful to the face without coming up for breath.
“Like this,” I said, offering him a demonstration. I filled my stomach with nine parts water and one part ale, slamming the empty mug onto the table.
Chipper seemed like a man who wouldn’t take well to being outdone at anything, least of all drinking. Determined, he licked his lips, grasped the mug with both hands and threw his head back.
Barely halfway in, he coughed up foam and spit onto his beard.
“That’s a failed attempt,” I said. “Wanna give it a try, Quip?”
Quip homed in on the mug with his one good eye, rubbed his hands together and gave it his best — which was not good enough. He got all red in the face, and veins were swelling in his neck as he tried keeping his throat open and the ale flowing, but in the end he threw himself forward and shoved his mug across the table in defeat.
Gimmon also tried, and also failed.
“I’ve got another game to play,” I said. “It’s a little easier. Learned this one while—”
“Wait a damn minute,” Chipper said. He snapped his fingers at the bar hand. “Fill ’er up! I’ll not be outdone by a fucking sellsword.”
Attempt number two ended with another beardful of foam and spit. So did attempts number three, four and five. Attempt number six was a spectacular disaster, resulting in the entirety of the mug missing his mouth.
Gimmon and Quip tried their damnedest to keep pace during all of this, but by the seventh round, their heads hung and their eyes looked like slits. Chipper appeared to be having an out-of-body experience, head rolling forward and snapping back as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Finally, his face fell onto the table and he began slobbering.
Quip and Gimmon rested their heads on their arms, and before long they were snoring and slobbering. And that’s when I took my leave. I hoofed it northward, wanting to arrive as silently as possible. Chipper said it’d take less than an hour on horseback, so I figured two hours or so on foot would put me at the gravelands in time.
Chipper and his pals probably meant well, what with their intention of revenge. But I needed this grave robber alive and well, not lying in a field with his head rolling away. Information is far more helpful than blood.
The grave keeper passed through once, but he didn’t see me tucked away in the boughs of a tree. As the black sky began peeling away and revealing the soft layer of a predawn blue, a heavy fog poured in across the gravelands.
And through that heavy fog emerged a snout, then a pair of ears, then the full body of a horse. The morning croaked and it creaked as a wooden wagon lolled along.
I held a few small branches back, offering myself a clearer view. Trees are wonderful places in which to stake out, but you do have to contend with obscuring leaves, creepy-crawlies and the occasional bird who thinks your hair is a great place to raise her babies.
The horse planted her feet in stiff mud and sniffed the air, rocking the wagon to a stop. Out of the seat of the wagon swung a few uncoordinated limbs that looked like uneasy saplings trying to withstand the brunt of their first storm.
I squinted as the figure stooped to the ground. Was that a fucking pig in his arms? Rather chubby and squat, curly tail, flat snout. Certainly looked like a pig, a young one. Sounded like one too, snorting its way across the field.
It stopped and smashed its front hooves in front of its face, snorting gleefully. The figure, cloaked in a cowl, tugged on the reins of the horse, bringing the wagon to the pig. Then there was a clank, and soon after, dirt was excavated.
The gloomy outline of the tall man or woman — couldn’t yet tell — hunched over, then stood upright and flung a shovelful of dirt away from the newly made hole.
He carved out a long rectangular plot and then dug deeper, about three feet down. Throwing the shovel aside, he knelt and stretched his arms deep into the hole. A few tugs and a couple grunts later, a hand emerged. A fleshy hand, mostly, although it looked like the kind of flesh that had a tendency to slough off if you weren’t careful with your grip.
A four-letter word rasped into the early morning:
Well, at least I knew what gender I was dealing with. The man struggled with the corpse, letting the dead, decomposing body get the best of him. He went at it again, this time grabbing an ankle. He huffed and puffed as the weight of bones and maggots shifted uncooperatively in the grave.
I wondered. Was this how my brother had gone? Not willingly, but with a struggle, intent on resting in peace?
After a while, the grave robber finally lifted the cadaver up and out. Things dropped from the body. Wiggly, slimy things that tunnel into dirt and rotting flesh alike.
By the time he had lifted the corpse into the wagon, the wind was in my face. The grass went
crunch, crunch, crunch
beneath my feet. It’s a vague sound, the pursuit of a predator, but one full of terror. You can hear it coming, but in the darkness of the night, sound has no direction. It envelops you, flings itself at you from every direction.
And by the time you have the perspicacity to run, it’s already too late.
The man swiveled around, breath beating hard in his chest. He turned the wrong way.
I leaped into him, locking my arm around his neck, ebon dagger in hand.
“We’re going to have a chat, me and you,” I said. “Are you a chatty man?”
The heat from his gaped mouth warmed my cold hand. He said nothing.
“I’m going to release you, but you’re not going to run. Are you?”
He shook his head fervently.
“Because if you run, you will bleed. And you don’t like to bleed, do you?”
Another fervent shake of his head.
“Well, fantastic. I feel like this little talk is going well so far.”
Like a snake uncoiling itself from the collapsed lungs of its prey, I slowly unwound my hand from the man’s throat. As he promised, he did not run.
“Sit,” I ordered. “Against the wagon here.” The man did as I asked. I yanked back his cowl, revealing a headful of curly hair and a smooth, pale face. Looking at him, I was surprised he didn’t run off. It’s always the young ones who let terror overcome them and make them do silly things.
“What’s a boy like you doing out here robbing graves?” I asked.
He licked his lips and wagged a pleading hand at me. “Please, sir. Don’t kill me, I beg.”
“I’m not fond of beggars. I’m even less fond of people who do not answer my questions.”
“I wasn’t robbin’ graves, sir.”
I crouched down, shadowing the boy’s face. “Firstly, don’t call me sir. Secondly, you’ve got to be fucking me. I’m standing here with the stench of a rotting corpse two feet away from my nose, and you’re telling me you’re not robbing graves?”
He waved another pacifying hand at me. “Didn’t mean it—” He clutched his stomach, and his cheeks inflated.