Under the Shell:
A Tale of Zodom
by Stuart North
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The commotion in the other room died down, and I heard muffled conversation. Bandar and the boy came back into the room again. Toggy’s eyes were downcast and I noticed he was no longer carrying the egg.
Bandar had a triumphant look on his face. “Bogman,” he said. “Another job before you’re done here. I want you to take this boy to the docks, find him the nearest available barge out of the city. I’ve convinced him of the danger he’s in and his need to flee. I’ve given him a nice sum of money and provisions for the trip. You’ll be paid twenty marduks for the bother. But you’ll have to leave immediately. Time is of the essence.”
I thought about it then shook my head. “Bossman Grolek doesn’t let us do private jobs. All payment has to go through him first.”
“Damn you, man! Who’s even going to know?”
“I will. Besides,” I said, “my leg’s a mess.”
“I’ll give you something for the pain.”
“Please,” Toggy said. “If I stay here the Cat’s Eye Crew will get me.”
“And the rest of us,” Bandar said.
“And you. If you stay.”
“So you’re sending me and the boy back out there to take the heat off you?”
“I won’t deny there are dangers. That’s why I’m going to pay you ten times what you’d normally earn in a night. That’s fair, isn’t it? Anyway, I saw the way you handled yourself back there. They didn’t stand a chance. You’re a marvel of the human form, bogman, a veritable marvel. What’s your name by the way?”
“It’s Cattle Bruiser,” the boy said.
“Cattle Bruiser eh? Well, he looks like he could brain an ox or two!” He made another sound like a laugh. It caught in his throat and died.
“And what about you?” I asked. “What are you going to do?”
“First thing tomorrow morning, I’ll return the egg to Robis myself, with apologies. Tell him to call off his boys.”
“So you’re keeping the egg?”
“Ey, look, I know what you’re thinking. But I can’t sell this off any more than the boy can. It’s just too hot. Might as well sell the High Priest’s royal mask. But please, enough talking, we have to leave now. Will you do it?”
I thought for another moment. “All right.”
“Great. I’ll get you something for your leg. You, Toggy, stay here and don’t touch a thing.”
The boy nodded and looked downcast.
Bandar returned with a gauze and a small jar of ointment. He dabbed the stuff on my leg which brought fresh tears to my eyes, then began to wind the gauze about the wound.
“Now,” he said, “you’ll need to head straight down the south road onto Weedsmoke Street. Then turn onto Grog Lane and make your way through the Fishmongers Market to get to the docks. There are quicker ways, but that’s the safest. Stick to the lighted areas where possible. If you have to go through an alley, go hard and don’t stop for anything. Oh,” he added, “and stay away from the sides of houses.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“The Cat’s Eye Crew like to keep to the roofs. It’s how they get around. You don’t want one dropping right on your head now, do you?”
“Guess I don’t.”
He finished wrapping the gauze, then cut and tied the end deftly under the whole. Already the blood was beginning to seep through, three lines of razor-straight red merging into a ruddy stain. I thought back to the slashing claws, the bright eyeslits burning in the darkness. The humanity that had given itself over wholly to the animal side. “Boss,” I said. “These Cat’s Eyes. What are they, anyway?”
“Just men. Very crazy men, altered by the Khemit physicians to resemble cats. They’re the number one hitmen in the city. Well, them and the Leopard Skin Boys.”
“And who are they?”
“Who are they? More or less the same. Freaks with a step up. Oh, you won’t have to worry about them. Not unless word gets out about this whole business, which, of course, it won’t.” He winked as though by that single gesture he could reassure me.
And behind him the boy winked too.
The rickshaw was still tied up where I’d left it. The lamp cast a little circle of light around the lonely vehicle and the empty street. I listened a moment then motioned the boy to follow. He leapt in and once more I took up the lifting arms.
“Ready?” I said.
I eased into the street then broke into a full-legged sprint.
The run was easier than I’d imagined. Whatever Bandar had put on my leg had not only stemmed the bleeding but had dulled the pain and eased the stiffness.
We flew down Weedsmoke Street. The wheels clattered on the cobbles, the lamp swung wildly above me. We turned down Fishmongers Lane and its stink of dried and rotting fish. Then the air cleared, the stars emerged, and we were going down towards the River Zod that loomed like a great glistening band ahead of us.
As we reached the docks I became aware of Toggy. He must have been screaming my name for a long time, but I hadn’t paid it any heed in the heat of the run.
“Stop,” he said. “For the love of Set, stop!”
I reined up, drew out my cudgel. “What is it, Toggy, what’s the matter?”
“You’re going the wrong way.”
“This is the docks, right here.”
“But I don’t want to go to the docks. You have to take me to Gamelin’s gaff over on Milk Street.”
“Bandar said to take you to the docks.”
“I know what Bandar said, you foghead. I’m telling you to go to Gamelin’s house.”
“We don’t have time for this—”
“Wait. Listen. Bandar thinks he’s got the egg, but I swapped it for a fake one, same way I got it out of Robis’s house in the first place.” He patted a bulge in his tunic and grinned. “I’ve still got it!”
“You did what?
“We have to get to Gamelin’s gaff!”
“You still have the egg?”
“And I can pay you for the trouble. Fifty marduks!”
I reached over and lifted Toggy by the lapels. Out shook the egg. It thumped between my feet.
“Hey!” Toggy said, kicking and squirming in my grasp. “Give that back!”
“No! Thief! Thiiieeefff!”
Several of the dockworkers were already watching us. A big Caanite sailor stood up from his game of dice and strode over.
“Hey, what you doing to that kid?”
“Doesn’t look like nothing.”
I dropped the boy, hard, on the wooden bench of the rickshaw and turned to confront the sailor. He was big, and strong, and built for brawling, but so am I. He shied back when he saw my tattoos and the muscles rippling beneath them. He might even have backed down entirely if his mates hadn’t been goading him on. But his blood was up, and so was mine, and I think we were both bracing ourselves for the inevitable.
Then from somewhere out the corner of my eye I saw a flicker of movement, and I knew that we had something far worse to worry about. Prancing and skipping in the light of the moon down the long road to the docks came the Cat’s Eye Crew. And they outnumbered us all two to one.
The Caanite sailor turned toward them. “What the hell?”
“Run!” I screamed. “Get out of here!”
The other sailors stood now, watching this new menace. I ran toward them, waving my arms and screaming in a frantic effort to alert them to the danger.
I looked back. The dancing wave swept over the big Caanite and I saw him fall. Then they surrounded us, a lithe mass of feline bodies, slashing and leaping and clawing. Two more of the sailors went down, clutching their necks, blood gushing through their fingers in frothy red gouts.
I swung my cudgel like a madman, crushing skulls and ribs and arms and legs, kicking, butting, elbowing. The river acted as a kind of shield, and I kept it as close to me as I could. One of the Cat Men pirouetted and kicked my cudgel flying. I grabbed the next best thing available and rammed the egg straight into his face. His nose exploded and one of his eye lenses fell out. He hissed and clutched his face and screamed. I swung the egg about my head two-handed and rammed it down on another one’s head.
Now that the surprise had worn off and we found ourselves in a life and death fight, we were giving as good as we got, the sailors and I. But we were simply outnumbered. The surprise had whittled us down, and now they were going to finish us off.
I was determined to fight to the end, and probably would have since I was tiring fast and already had a dozen cuts on my body. And the river at my back had become a precipice.
Then I got wind of a change in the battle, a shift that I felt more by instinct than anything else. A new element had entered the fray. I watched, stunned, as a yellow-eyed catman fought a red-eyed catman in a hail of clawing and slashing. I saw red-eyes fall. Then, a moment later, yellow-eyes joined him from a stab in the kidneys from one of red-eye’s mates.
Whether these others were friendly to us or not I didn’t wait to find out. I hit out at anyone who came too near, sailors as well, though there didn’t seem to be many of them left. A white haze filled my mind, and I was aware of nothing but my own desperate urge to survive. I suppose I was pretty much all animal then, an animal fighting among animals.
Then there was one left. One Cat Man among a dozen. He hissed at me, and I kicked him between the legs. He went down and didn’t get up.
I looked around at the carnage on the docks. Cat Men and sailors twisted about each other in death. I tried to understand what had just happened, what I’d just been witness to. It seemed so pointless.
I remembered Bandar’s words. How the Cat’s Eye Crew only worked on commission. The same must have been true of the others, the Leopard Skin Boys. But who had hired them? Someone who wanted hold of the egg as badly as Robis. Gamelin perhaps. Maybe Bandar himself.
Someone moved from behind the cart. I raised the egg, too weary to even put much menace in the movement. But it was only the boy. Natural survivor that one.
I laughed, and lowered the egg. “That sure was something, wasn’t it?”
He approached me, wary as a dog. “You’ve got something that belongs to me.”
I shook my head. “Are you serious? After all this?
“Why not? They’re dead aren’t they? Who’s to know?”
“Get lost, kid.”
“I want my egg.”
“It’s not yours, no more than it’s Bandar’s or Robis’s or Gamelin’s.”
“Give it back.”
I sighed, and there was as much pity as exasperation or anything else in that sigh. “Torgelik, go away from here. Get on that barge and start a new life somewhere far away from here. Grow up, get a girl, get a job and don’t get mixed up in things like this again. You think any of this will make you rich? Hell, maybe it would, but it’ll leave you dead in a ditch before you get to enjoy half that money. Look at these poor sods for proof.”
“You’re just like all the rest, a liar and a hypocrite.”
“Oh, am I really?”
I drew back my arm and sent the egg sailing into the water.
“No!” the boy screamed.
The egg hit the surface with a small splash and began to bob downriver.
The boy watched it with pain in his eyes and a sort of stillness that dissolved his youth like smoke.
“What...?” he said. “Why...?”
“You’ll learn in time.”
“Eight thousand marduks...”
I turned and walked back to my cart. The boy remained where he stood. As I had told him, he would learn in time. Or perhaps he wouldn’t. It didn’t much matter to me and, at any rate, I never saw him again.
I am, as I’ve been continually told by my wise Zodomese friends and enemies, a ‘bogman’. I am not, of course, a savage. Like all my brothers, I knew where sleen came from, and I knew how it was extracted. Why wouldn’t I when my people have been doing it for centuries?
I knew that if the animal had fallen into the hands of either of the two milkers, it would have led a life of the utmost hell, chained up in some basement in a bath of its own filth, bleeding its milk-white blood through the thousand subtle cuts in its body for years on end until, at last, it died in misery and hopelessness and pain.
Eight thousand marduks. For that.
The stars were paling with dawn when I reached the top of the hill. I looked toward the river and saw the egg. It was tiny in the distance, indistinguishable from the other flotsam that drifted along, but my eyes picked it out as easily as a jewel among garbage. As I watched, it crumpled inward and a thing like a black snake lashed about in the water, fighting to free itself from the wreckage of its shell.
Then it kicked out and was gone. Toward the east and the rising sun. Toward the marshlands.
Toward its home.
Copyright © 2017 by Stuart North