Extract from Dusk

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

An extract from Dusk, Chapter One

When Kosar saw the horseman, the world began to end again.

The horse walked towards the village, the rider shifting in fluid time to his mount’s steps. The man’s body was wrapped in a deep red cloak, pulled up so that it formed a hood over his head, shadowing his face. His hands rested on his thighs. The horse made its own way along the road. Loose reins hung either side of its head, its mane was clotted with dirt, its unshod hooves clacked and clicked puffs of dust from the dry trail. Only one man on a horse, and he did not appear to be armed.

How, then, could Kosar know that death followed him in?

With a grimace he stopped work and squatted. A warm breeze kissed the raw flesh of his fingertips – the marks of a thief – and took away the pain for a few precious moments. Blood had dripped and dried into a dust-caked mess across his hands and between his fingers, and they crackled when he flexed them. The unhealing wounds were a permanent reminder of the mistakes of his past.

Kosar decided that the irrigation trenches could wait a few minutes more. It had taken two years for the village to decide to commission them; another moment would make no difference to the crops withering and dying in the fields. Besides, they needed much more than water, though most would refuse to believe that was so. And now there was something more interesting to grab his attention, something that might bring excitement to this measly little collection of huts, hovels and run-down dwellings that dared call itself a village.

He stared along the road at the figure in the distance. Yes, only one man, but a threatening pall hung about him, like shadowy echoes of evil deeds. Kosar looked the other way, past the old stone bridge and into the village itself. There were children playing by the stream, diving and resurfacing in triumph if they caught a fish between their teeth. Elsewhere, drinkers sat silently stoned outside the tavern, mugs of rotwine festering half-finished in the sun, the other half coursing through veins and inducing a few cherished hours of catatonia. It was a false escape that he, Kosar the thief, would never be permitted again. At least not where any form of law still applied.

The market was small today, but a few traders plied their wares and squeezed tellan coins and barter from the village folk. Skinned furbats hung from hooks along one stall, their livers intact and ripe with rhellim, the drug of sexual abandonment. He had already seen three people skulking away, a furbat beneath their shirt and their eyes downcast. Their children may not eat tonight, but at least the parents would be assured of a good screw. Another trader sold charms supposedly from Kang Kang, banking on the fear and awe in which that place was held to make the buyers see past the trinkets’ obvious falseness. There were food sellers too, offering fruits from the Cantrass Plains. But the journey from that place was long, the route difficult, and most of the fruits had lost their lively hue.

Kosar turned once again to the stranger. He was much closer now, and the sound of his progress had become audible in the heavy air. The figure raised its head almost imperceptibly. The cloak shifted to allow a sliver of the falling sun inside and Kosar squinted as he tried to make out what it revealed. His eyesight was not as good as it had once been, scorched by decades in the sun and weakened by lack of nourishment, but it had never misled him.

The stranger’s face was as red as his cloak.

Kosar stood and shielded his eyes. His first impulse was to grab the pick he’d been using, so he could swing it up in a killing arc if necessary. His second urge was to turn and run, and this surprised him. He’d always been a thief but never a coward. It was why he was still alive now, and it was the reason he could live among people, even with the terrible unhealing brands on his fingers.

He also listened to his hunches. Instinct was for survival, and Kosar followed his as much as possible.

But not this time. Instead, he crept back along the trench towards the bridge. Every step felt heavy, each movement against good sense. Something inside shouted at him to turn and run, abandon the village to whatever fate this red man brought with him. The place had never really done anything for Kosar. Acceptance it had given grudgingly, but never affection, never any true sense of belonging. They’d put up with him because he worked for them, nothing more. He’d spent the last mid-summer festival skulking past the stone bridge while the town cabal handed out ale and food. The revelry had jibed at him as he watched the setting sun alone, even though the jibing was mostly his own.

Turn and run.

But he could not.

Turn and run, Kosar, you bloody fool!

Even though instinct urged him to flee, and good sense told him that death’s shadow was already closing over the village, there were children here, playing in the stream. There were a few women in the village that he liked, or would like to like, given the chance. And more than anything Kosar was a good man. A thief, a criminal, branded forever as untrustworthy and devious, but a good man.

The horseman was no more than two minutes away from the village. Kosar had almost reached the end of the trench where it joined the stream, the bridge a hundred steps away. The children had finished their fishing and playing and climbed the bank, and now they sat on the bridge parapet, swinging their legs over the edge, laughing and joking and watching the stranger approach. Such trust, Kosar thought, in a world where hunger and fear made trust so precious.

He was about to call out to the children when the horse broke into a gallop.

He could have warned them. He should have shouted at them to turn and run, go to their homes, tell their parents to lock their doors. Kosar had seen enough trouble in his life to recognise its flowering, and he had known from the instant he’d laid eyes on the horseman that he was not here for a drink, a meal, a bed for the night. He could have warned them, but shouting would have drawn attention to himself. And in this case, instinct won out.

The man in red dismounted on the bridge and approached the children. His horse remained where it had stopped, head bowed as if smelling the water through thick stone. The children stood, jumped around, giggled. Kosar glanced across into the village and saw several people looking his way, a couple of them striding quickly towards the bridge, one woman darting into the brothel where the three village militia spent most of their time.

For a moment all was still. Kosar paused, unmoving. The breeze died down as if the land itself was holding its breath. Even the stream seemed to slow.

The man in red spoke. His voice was water running uphill, birds falling into the sky, sand eroding into rock. Where is Rafe Baburn? he asked. The children glanced at one-another. One of the girls offered a nervous smile.

Later, Kosar would swear that the man never even gave them time to reply.

He grabbed the smiling girl by her long hair, pulled his hand from within the red robes and sliced her throat. His knife seemed to lengthen into a sword, as if gorging on the fresh blood smearing its blade, and he swung it through the air. Three other children clutched at fatal wounds, shrieking as they disappeared from Kosar’s view behind the parapet. The two remaining boys turned to run and the hooded man caught them, seemingly without moving. He beheaded them both with a flick of his wrist.

Kosar fell to his knees, the breath sucked from him, and rolled sideways into the irrigation ditch. He cringed at the splash, but the hooded man strode across the bridge and into the village without pause. Kosar peered above the edge of the trench and watched through brown reeds as the man approached the first building.

The village was in turmoil. A woman screamed when she saw the devastation on the bridge, and others soon took up her cry. Men emerged from doorways clutching crossbows and swords. Children ran along the street, their eyes widening with a terrible curiosity when they saw their dead friends. Goats and sheebok scampered through the dust, startled to the ends of their tethers, crying and choking as leather leads jerked them to a standstill. The man in red walked on, the robe still tight around his body, hood over his head. From this angle Kosar could only see his back, and for that he was glad. From the glimpse he had caught of the red face, he had no desire to see beneath that hood again.

A woman, mad with grief, tried to run past the man to hug her dead child. His arm snatched out and buried the sword in her stomach. He jerked it free without breaking his step, the woman’s blood splashing his robe. Her scream wound down like an echo in a cave. There was another shout from the village, and the whistle of a crossbow bolt boring the air.

It struck the man in the shoulder. He paused momentarily –

This is when he goes down, Kosar thought, and then they’ll fall on him and he’ll be torn to shreds.

– and then continued on his way. The bolt protruded from his shoulder, pinning the cloak tighter to his body. The shooter re-primed his crossbow, loaded another bolt and fired again, his eyes blinded with grief but his aim still true. This one struck the man in the face. Again he paused, his head snapping back with the impact. And again he went on his way once more. His pace increased, dust kicking up from beneath his red robe, clotted black with his own spilled blood.

Someone stumbled from the door of the brothel further along the street. It was one of the three militia, naked, flushed and erect from his regular afternoon dose of rhellim, yet still of sound enough mind to bring his longbow with him. A whore staggered out after him, frenzied from rhellim overdose, grabbing at the soldier’s crotch even as he strung an arrow and sighted on the red-robed man. He nudged the whore aside with his knee. She sprawled in the dust and shouted her rage up at him. The soldier let loose his arrow.

It thudded into the man and burst from his back. He stood for a moment like a red butterfly pinned to the air. The first man with the crossbow ran at him, raising his weapon to strike the murderer around the face, but the aggressor moved so quickly that Kosar barely saw the sword shimmer through the air. The crossbow spun across the road and into the stream, closely followed by its owner’s head, mouth still wide in a scream.

Another bolt struck home, fired from somewhere beyond Kosar’s field of view. Another, then another. The man barely paused this time, as if becoming used to the impact of wood and iron, his body adjusting itself around the alien objects puncturing and shredding it. He reached the tavern where the regular drinkers were stirring from thoughtless slumber and slaughtered all six of them. He did so slowly, seeming to relish every thrust and slice of his sword, oblivious to the bolts and arrows pounding into his red robed body.

The other two militia had emerged from the brothel and all three now stood in the street, ridiculously naked and sweat-soaked and hard on rhellim. The whores huddled back against the brothel wall and watched as their men plucked arrows from their quivers, strung, fired, strung and fired again. Each arrow found its mark, and the nearer the man in red came to the militia the more damage they did.

One shaft struck his throat and exited the back of his neck, carrying a stringy mess of gristle and veins with it. The air was thick with blood. Kosar could not believe what he was seeing; the man should be dead. He was a walking cactus – there were two dozen arrows and bolts peppering his body, and more hitting home every few seconds – and yet he walked. He swung his sword, hacked at the villagers, and their bodies spilled blood into the dust. Kosar watched aghast as the man in red reached the militia. They stood their ground as they were trained, wide-eyed and terrified. They took up their swords, engaged the arrowed-peppered figure together and died together. One was split from throat to sternum by a twitch of the blade, another lost his rampant genitals before his guts followed them to the ground. The third, mad and brainwashed to the last, ran at the enemy with the intention of wrestling him into the dust. The robed figure spun at the last instant, and the soldier was impaled on his own arrows.

With the militia dead, the massacre of the villagers began in earnest.

The man in red still wore the hood over his face. His hands barely seemed to move before another body fell to the ground. And arrows and bolts still thrummed into him.

Time to leave, Kosar knew. He glanced at the bridge, queasy because he had not gone to help those children. But at least this way he still had the stomach to feel sick.

He turned and made his way along the trench on his hands and knees. Each splash in the shallow water was accompanied by a scream from the village, or a groan, or the thud of another useless arrow finding its mark. He’d seen some things in his time, some strange, some unpleasant, some weird and wonderful. But he had never seen a man fighting with thirty arrows letting his blood and twisting up his insides.

He stared to pant, and realised only then that he was panicking. The sounds from the village were receding as he lay distance down behind him. They were worse than before – the screams of children once more – but they were quieter now. Certainly not easier to hear, but less of a threat.

Kosar paused for a moment and lifted his hands from the muddy water. The ground was clay here, hardly ideal for planting crops but perfect for coating unwary crawlers with a blood-red deposit. He hung his head until his long hair dipped in as well, perhaps willing himself to be blooded. He had done nothing. Those children on the bridge, innocent, ignorant only because their parents were ignorant, so alive, so trusting…

He had done nothing.

“Oh Mage shit,” he whispered wretchedly.

The noise from the village stopped. No more screams. No more shouts. No more crossbows twanging, arrows whistling through the air or swords met in sparkling fury. Nothing but the slow, methodical footsteps of one man.

Kosar held his breath and raised his head slightly, looking back over his shoulder, the only sound now the thick water dripping from his hair. His hands were slowly sinking into the mud at the bottom of the ditch, his wounded fingertips stinging under the cold caress. It felt as if they were pressing into spilled guts and the image horrified him. He was a thief, not a murderer.

How would he know what spilled guts felt like?

And then he realised. As his eyes drew level with the dried grass and he saw the man in red strolling among the dead, he knew. He knew the feel of guts because he had seen them spilled, smelled their tangy scent, heard the screams of their owners as they tried to catch them. He knew because he had stood by and watched those children die, when he could at least have warned them that this man was danger, this man was death. And because a sick realisation suddenly dawned and he knew this man, who he was and where he was from. He’d heard whispers of legends, listened to outlandish stories by campfire light or the smoke-hazed atmospheres of taverns a lifetime from here.

The stranger was a Red Monk.

Which meant that somewhere in the land, magic was living again.

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