Part 2. Corpse Conduct
“B-BUT, WE MUST give them a proper burial,” Criptchinn implored.
“Nay, Criptchinn, my goblin-lad, we must display them for all to see.” Wrackolyte Samharm laid a callused hand upon the altar goblin’s shoulder. “Nothing must seem amiss whence they arrive. I know it is a hard thing.” It seemed the empty black sockets of all the hanging dead were staring at him, loathing him, judging him. He averted his gaze and focused upon the remaining inhabitants of Festerfern Gorse. “We must not be ashamed of the unspeakable atrocities we as a community have committed upon our fallen brethren.” The stink was nearly unbearable. “It is a necessitude.”
“But it won’t work,” Criptchinn hissed. “They will know. If there is one thing they know, it is death! Death in all its forms. They will know it was fever killed them, not sacrifice!”
The assembled Gorsers began to mutter amongst themselves. Perhaps fifty strong they were. All those still hale enough to stand, to walk, to assemble. All those who hadn’t succumbed, hadn’t fallen, hadn’t hacked their own bloody lungs up. They were the lucky ones, perhaps…
“Our tithe’s a month late.” Criptchinn’s tiny hands balled into fists. “We should flee now—”
“Allay your fears, lad,” Wrackolyte Samharm said, though more to the Gorsers than the altar goblin. The Wrackolyte stood heads taller than the tallest, his one great cyclops eye surfing the crowd with an even gaze. “Yes, they come. Yes, they will be here on the morrow. Yet, we shall be long gone by then.” He crossed his arms. “Garmon Hawke and the Urzgareg brothers have watched the Old Ways this past week and watch them even now. They report back at every dawn and every dusk.” He glanced at the setting sun. “I expect Garmon within the hour. We require but another night for the final wagon to be complete.” He turned to a troll. “Is that a fair estimate, Moobruc?”
“Yes, Wrackolyte.” Moobruc twitched a dozen rapid-fire nods, his hat clutched between his two massive troll paws. “Is ready tomorrow. By sunrise tomorrow.”
“By sunrise,” Wrackolyte Samharm repeated, his clarion voice carrying. “Oberin, would you abandon your wife? Or you, Quaghain? Would you abandon your three children to the ravages of the fester-scorn fever? For a matter of a few hours?” He shook his head slowly. “Of course not. We all have loved ones who are ill, who are suffering, who are dying. We all have those we care about. I would not abandon a single one. Tomorrow,” he clasped his hands together, “it shall be the Craw we abandon forever. To Allbridge Tower in the west, the abode of the Healer. She shall cure our loved ones of this scourge.”
The crowd quelled. Hope, too, perhaps was infectious. Mayhap even more so than fester-scorn fever.
“Fertile soil awaits us across the river.” Wrackolyte Samharm nodded his bearded head as he gazed out with satisfaction over the crowd. “Good lives.” These were good peoples. And they had found the true path. They deserved better than muck-farming till the end of their miserable days. The festerfern that grew in the marshes often proved deadly with prolonged exposure. Outsiders feared it, avoided it, which was its sole boon. But its toll had been taken upon the populace, who swung lazily in the breeze, and it was time to move on.
“Lustrous crops and clean air await us.” Wrackolyte Samharm strode into the crowd. It parted before him and closed behind, embracing him. They had accepted him in the five short years the Black Temple been assigned him here. They had listened to him, grown with him, made him one of their own. All different races, all bound by propinquity and love of family, of farming, of peace.
“Salvation, brothers, sisters, harkens nigh but hours away.” He fixed his gaze upon one set of eyes and then another. “We have all committed sins.” He strode through the forest of bodies recognizing croakers and humans and goblins. All friends, all brothers, all sisters, all Travellers upon the Shining Path.
“We must align and hang the final bodies within the square.” Wrackolyte Samharm glanced past the stranger as he moved toward him. “We must apply the tithing rites to them though it sickens us to do so. I shall bear this gruesome burden, for it will take an expert hand, else all might be lost.”
The stranger was a male, a young human male.
Wrackolyte Samharm edged through the crowd, greeting folk, reassuring them. “Seamus, good to see you.” His eyesight was not strong at distance. “Clarista, you look well.” He moved closer to the man, a mere boy, really. “Marius, fear not.” A tricorn hat sat upon the boy’s head. A rapier at his hip. A most unmanly weapon.
“We take solace that our dead shall offer us life. We take solace that those who have passed on begged with dying breath that we do this. So that their loved ones might carry on.”
During the speech, the boy had remained upon the crowd’s outskirts. Now the boy shied away as Wrackolyte Samharm neared. He melted back into the shadows, but the sunlight was yet strong and Wrackolyte Samharm was close.
“You are new to Festerfern Gorse, lad,” Wrackolyte Samharm announced.
“Eh, who?” The boy turned, mumbling something unintelligible, and then turned back, flustered, stumbling.
“He’s a spy!” The crowd had oozed out from the hovels and lean-tos and hanging corpses to engulf the boy like an oozed. “A spy for them!”
The boy twitched from left to right, back and forth on the balls of his feet.
The crowd closed in on him slowly, edging nearer, hands flexing open and closed, heavy rusted farm tools borne by many.
“I would know your name and purpose, lad.” Wrackolyte Samharm towered over the boy. “You shan’t be harmed.” With the raise of his hand, the crowd hung back. “You have my word.”
“P-Please don’t hurt me.” The boy licked his lips. “Just let me go. Please. Madam Spew said—”
Someone in the crowd coughed behind him, and the boy grabbed at the rapier at his hip. “Stay back!”
“!@*HOLD*@!” Wrackolyte Samharm thrust an illuminated hand out.
The boy froze in place just as his blade whisked free of its scabbard.
At the sight of the bared steel, Criptchinn, all needles and teeth, pounced upon the frozen lad’s back, sending them both to the ground in a ragged heap.
“I am Father Samharm, Litigate of Sanctos, He of Justice, He of Right, He of the Sun and the Swamp, and all betwixt. I walk the True Path, my apostasy nigh-complete.” Father Samharm peered down at the twisted heap. Neither one moved. “Up, Criptchinn. Do no harm. Criptchinn…?”
Father Samharm dropped to a knee in the muck and rolled Criptchinn off the spell-frozen boy.
“UUUUrrggh…” A black rose was blossoming fast upon Criptchinn’s chest and likewise upon the back of the fallen boy. The boy’s rapier blade protruded between the two, connecting them. Criptchinn crumpled grey into the muck, sliding from Father Samharm’s arms limp as a dead eel.
“Criptchinn!” Father Samharm roared. “NO!” He raised his open hand and grasped the red setting sun, drawing it down in effigy, glowing live and vermilion within his thick fist as he pressed the energy to Criptchinn’s chest. “!@*LIVE*@!” Father Samharm commanded, his voice echoing as he forced shimmering brilliance inside the wound. A chorus of seraphim filled the air as the wind blew warm and strong, and as it blew, color and life returned to Criptchinn’s small green form.
“Another corpse.” Garmon Hawke knelt, placing a hand upon the boy’s throat. He had returned suddenly and unawares, which was one of his gifts. “Gotta hide him, Father.”
“Please—” Father Samharm was at the boy’s body, rolling him over. The rapier had skewered him through and through, just below his sternum. “This,” his hands fell, weak, shaking, “is beyond me.” A great tear rolled from his single orb. “Why?”
“Cause he was a stupid kid, Father,” Garmon Hawke spat into the muck, “and nothin’ more.”
Father Samharm shook his head as he began the Prayer of the Sanctified Fallen. Hats amongst the crowd were doffed and gazes aimed low. When Father Samharm had finished, he closed the boy’s eyes and drew the rapier free, wiping the blade clean on his own robes.
“Will Criptchinn live?” Garmon Hawke asked.
“Yea, though it shall pain him the rest of his days.” Father Samharm took the boy’s tricorn hat and placed it over the boy’s face. “Moobruc, bear Criptchinn to my home, please. Watch over him until I return.”
The big troll obeyed, lifting Criptchinn with ease.
Father Samharm looked to Garmon Hawke. “How close are they?”
“Too close.” Garmon Hawke adjusted his brimmed hat and glanced at the horizon. “They’ll be here tonight. Two, maybe three hours.”
“Too soon by far.” Father Samharm clenched a fist. “The boy mentioned a name. Madam Spew? A Wrackolyte, no doubt. Have you gleaned anything of her in your forays?”
“Yup. She’s the one leads them.” Garmon Hawke knelt and wrapped the boy in his cloak. “Vicious little turd. A croaker. Wears a still-beating heart slung round her neck. Real pretty. Craven Lord’s sigil’s on it. Dresses like a whore — excuse me, father.” He sat the dead boy up then lifted him across his shoulders. “Was six all together. Five now. Two men. Two croakers. One chitterling. They got weapons. One or two might know how to use them. And they never seen us. Hmmph… City folk.” He adjusted a notched blade-breaker at his belt. “Spew sent the boy on ahead to spy. I let him through. Followed him.” A crossbow was slung across his back. “I’m going back to rendezvous with Nergril and Nurk after I take care of this. Father, we could take them in the swamps. They’d never know we was a coming…” He left it hanging as though hoping for no protest.
“I would risk neither Nergril nor Nurk, nor you, Garmon,” Father Samharm said. “Nay, let them come. We’ll evacuate who we can. Let it be me who deals with them.”
“Sure you’re up to it?” Garmon Hawke fixed him through one eye.
“I…I shall manage.”
“Me and the boys could do it.” He glanced up at the corpse borne across his shoulders. “You could take him.”
“Nay, brother.” He gazed at the horizon as the sun disappeared. “Enough death has been dealt on this day. The people of Festerfern Gorse shall need you to guide them to safety. To watch them. To protect them. And, Garmon,” he placed a hand upon Garmon Hawke’s shoulder, “do no harm.”
“Sure thing.” Garmon Hawke slung the corpse across the back of his shaggy garron’s back. “Old habits die easy, Father, just like everything else.” He stepped up into the saddle. “Trouble is keepin’ em that way.”