Under the Shell:
A Tale of Zodom
by Stuart North
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
It was another quiet night. Tash, Vulk and Pitchlok were all hunched over a barrel playing bone dice and blowing into their gloves. Bossman Grolek was inside his shack doing god knows what. Me, I was squatting on my long legs and thinking of home, which I suppose is a kind of activity. I was also watching the dice, in between my meditations of endless gray marshes and fiery wide sunsets.
Vulk looked past me. “Eyes up, chappies.”
Something like a wizened monkey was staggering down the street. It veered to the right and nearly took a dive into the Gildwater Canal before regaining its balance.
Pitchlok laughed. “It’s Bandar, the old sot. Look at him. Blind drunk he is!”
“Hell,” Vulk said, “you think that’s wine in his belly?”
“Well, whatever it is, he’ll probably spew it up in the cart before you’ve gone halfway. Who wants to take him?”
They all looked at me and laughed. I like to be sociable, and I laughed back. Tash went to slap me on the back but I stopped laughing then, and he held his arm, turned away and coughed. There’s only so much I’ll take.
The drunk, or whatever he was, approached us. His eyes were small and pinched as a weasel’s. In the light from Grolek’s shack I could see that his face was flat and rough and kind of evil-looking. I could also see that his clothes were much too swanky for a common crim. I had no doubt he was a crim, though what kind I didn’t know. Something big enough to get him a reputation and a fat purse of gold, at any rate.
Vulk stood up. “Bandar, my man. Had a good night?”
“Go boil your head.” The voice was slurry and foreign-sounding.
Vulk smiled. “Ey, Bandar. No need for any of that, else you’ll hurt our feelings and we might none of us be so inclined as to take you to that stinking hovel you call a home.”
Bandar looked thoughtful for a moment, then spat full at Vulk’s feet.
“Hey!” said Vulk leaping back. His foot caught on the lifting arms of his rickshaw and he fell flat on his arse.
Bandar grinned. “Hmm. Can’t even keep on his own two feet, and he expects me to ride with him!”
We went to help, but Vulk shook our arms off and reached for the cudgel at his belt. He was snarling mad, and maybe something bad would have happened then instead of later.
As it was, Bossman Grolek chose that moment to come rumbling out the shack, and we all stopped dead. Bossman Grolek isn’t a man you mess with, and Vulk certainly had no plans on doing so. He lowered his cudgel and looked down at his feet.
Grolek moved his head around and spied the troublemaker. “Bandar!” he growled. “You poisonous little toad. None of your nonsense tonight. Pay up and choose your driver. Be quick about it, or we’ll leave you to make your own way home. On foot,” he added by way of an emphasis, though that hardly needed to be said.
“Very well,” Bandar said, and smiled a little smile. His eyes flicked from driver to driver and latched on me. The smile turned up at one side and grew crooked. “That one,” he said. “The bald-headed lanker with the tattoos. Who’s he?”
“That’s Qatil,” Grolek said.
“I’ve never seen him before.”
“That’s because he’s new.”
“Is he fast?”
“One of the fastest.”
“And can he handle himself?”
“He look like he can handle himself?”
“Well enough.” He looked me up and down. “Nice tattoos. Mayut tribesman, am I right?”
“Shem’s sake, Bandar, you want to know his life history, ask him yourself.”
“No point. I already know everything there is to know about his quaintly savage people. And I know that any cutpurse that tries it on with him as my runner would have to be out of his mind. Or blind drunk. Which I, by the way, am not.” He turned his nose up at Vulk. “Anyway, he’s hired.”
“Good. Let’s arrange a fee.”
The two men went into the shack and started haggling. I watched them a moment with only the faintest stirrings of anger in my belly, then set to warming myself up. Leg stretches, arm stretches, running on the spot.
Vulk came up to me. “Do me a favor. Make it a bumpy one, will you?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said and cracked my knuckles.
Bandar came out of the shack and jumped into the rickshaw. I fixed my lamp to the roof hook and took up the lifting arms. My cudgel and whips were in easy reach of my right hand, and my whistle hung about my neck. Whistles don’t do much good once you leave the Patrolled Districts, but they sometimes scare away the lesser muggers.
“Where to?” I said.
“Apothecaries Lane, just past Canal Road. Got it?”
“Then what are you waiting for?”
I kicked into action. The lights of the depot disappeared behind us.
My pace was good; the lamp set up an easy swinging motion in the dark. From time to time other runners passed us, and all over Zodom small fires winked and flickered as the last of the day died down.
We crossed the first of the canals and turned left onto Metalworkers Street. The houses were smaller here, but respectable. There was a sudden burst of laughter, a flash of red faces drinking. Then darkness again.
When the smell hit us I knew we were in the Poor District. Dung and pee-stench kept washing over me like warm waves in the darkness. My feet trod in puddles of slime. My lamp began to seem small and pathetic. On all sides a warren of walls and doors closed in, and the stars seemed impossibly high above me. I kept one hand loose on the lifting arm, and one eye on the shadows.
Still, I thought I could at least relax a bit when we crossed the second canal and got back into the fresh air, but I was green and still thought there were safe areas in Zodom.
I heard it as I turned onto Dog Street: the patter of feet on cobbles. Up ahead, a swam of shadows in the darkness. I stopped.
Bandar grabbed me by the shoulder. “Back up, you fool! Quickly!”
“What is it?”
He shook me, even as I tried to reverse the awkward vehicle down the narrow alley we’d just squeezed through, and the first of the shadows came into the light. It was a boy, and he was holding something as he ran. He saw us and darted forward.
I let go of the lifting arms and drew my cudgel. I’m not a brute by nature, but I’m also not so dumb that I’m going to let my guts spill for any moral scruples about braining a child.
I swung hard. I was quick, but the kid was quicker. He ducked under the blow and leaped into the cart behind me. I heard the a cry.
Before I could do anything three more shadows came into the light. They were sleek and dark, and they looked like cats, if cats were men. They stopped dead and stared at me. Their eyes gleamed fire, and their claws did too.
One of them leapt.
I swung my cudgel and caught him a glancing blow. I swung again and heard something snap and I saw the man draw back, clutching an arm gone suddenly limp. To my left, the second one was trying to flank me.
I dropped the cudgel and heaved up and swung the very cart itself, catching him clean in the stomach with one of the lifting arms. The blow took him off his feet and slammed him against the alley wall with a sound like a giant hand slapping a giant cheek.
Without waiting, I drew my whip and cracked it in the third man’s face before he could get the jump on me. He hissed and slashed out with his claws. I cracked the whip again and opened a slash on his chest which showed white then red through the black leather that covered it. I cracked the whip once more, and the man turned tail and fled. They all did.
I listened to the pattering of feet receding, not into silence but into the welter of background noise that never quite dies away in this place.
The lamp creaked above me, throwing shadows as it swung. I felt dazed and I was panting hard, trying to swallow the nausea building in my chest. My left leg throbbed. I touched it and felt warm wetness. When I looked down I saw that three cuts had opened the skin of my thigh. Clawmarks, and deep.
“Little bugger,” Bandar said. “Get off me!”
I turned and saw the kid half-jump half-tumble from the cart where Bandar was sitting. He staggered on the cobbles and came up hard against the wall of the alleyway, still cradling whatever it was he held in his hands.
Bandar seemed unhurt, though a little the worse for wear. He muttered a curse, straightened himself up and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Bloody swine! Leapt right in my lap. Hugged me like I was his long-lost daddy.”
I took a deep breath, then another, then winced in pain.
“You okay, Boss?”
“Do I look okay, you divot? Help me down. I’ve got a cramp in my back.”
I did as he asked. The boy watched us from his place by the wall.
Bandar cursed again, stretched himself then suddenly felt over his robes with a frantic look on his face. “My pouch, by Set!” He began to scan the ground, squinting in the light.
I watched him a moment, still dazed, I think. Then I turned my attention to the boy. I don’t hold stock in kids’ being born bad, but one look at his face might have changed my mind. He had wide, ratty eyes and a hatchet nose that would only grow till it dominated his face in adulthood. His mouth was a puckered scar. He was also panting hard, clutching the round object in his arms.
For a moment, I thought it might be a baby, or an animal of some sort. But it was too smooth, too round to be anything living. He looked from me to Bandar and back again.
Bandar had given up his searching and now looked long and hard at the boy. “You. Gutter rat. Open your pockets.”
“I haven’t got any.”
“Open them anyway.”
“Boss,” I said, “he can’t have stolen your pouch, holding that thing like that.”
“You think so? I know how they operate, the little devils. Why, one of those is probably a false arm...” He reached forward to grab the boy, who stepped back, eyes wide.
“Boss,” I said, “have a heart. We all had a close shave tonight. We should be thankful we still have our lives.”
“Fifty marduks that was. Fifty marduks!”
I didn’t feel like arguing. I turned my attention to the boy. “Who were those men that were after you, kid?”
“I don’t know. Muggers or something. I was so scared. Please, mister. Can’t you get me home?”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Copyright © 2017 by Stuart North