Here lies Ser Hans Geiger. Knight of the Harrowlands, Sworn to the Cleaved, Bothvarian Shield.
That’s what it said on the gravestone once, well over a century ago. Rain, hard and cold, had spent many long years grinding away at the carvings; the intricate detail of religious emblems, the knotwork of the Beast of Shint and the axe that slew it were lost to time and weather.
In the darkness of winter’s night, the tombstone itself sat amongst the valleys to the north, on the very borders of the Harrowlands. Not that borders mattered here: they were vague and distant lines in the dirt and shrinking rapidly with encroaching hordes of orcs, an ever present threat that rooted itself in every dark corner of the nation. In this particularly gloomy corner graves lay in silence amongst the cemetary’s old, tumbling walls and rusted iron bars, sitting all but forgotten amongst the sharp, tall trees of the north.
Forgotten, except for the two who remembered and knew it all too well.
+ + +
Beneath a moonless night, the light of a single lantern fingered shadows into the grooves that once read the name of Ser Geiger. It flickered light in all directions, scattering itself across the dilapidated graveyard.
For once, all was not quite amongst the mossy, wild, and unkempt place. The laboured, rhythmic sound of metal scraped on the dirt beneath a pair particularly old boots.
Bertrum looked down into the rectangular hole beneath him. He rubbed his hands that, despite the pock-holed woolen gloves, became frigid in the cold.
“‘Ow can yer not be cold, Badger?” he asked, looking at the woods beyond, the tomb on the hill and all the other troves that held ancient treasures in cold dead hands. He was answered only by the same old scraping of dirt. Earth was thrown up at his feet. “Badger!”
No answer. Just digging.
“Badger,” he called out again. He grew impatient, kicking some of the dirt back into the hole.
“Fuck off, Bert!”
“‘Ow ain’t you cold?” he called into the pit.
Badger stared up at him. His face was lit up by the lantern. It was the only part of him that Bertrum could see – that round face and angry, pebbled eyes that somehow managed to look grim and gaunt. That was poverty’s effect, starvation and alcohol taking its toll after years of suffering. Bertrum stood still, expecting either rebuke or reply. Badger blinked at him before looking around into the black night.
His arms opened wide as he looked around in exaggerated wonder. “I’m opening up a piss trough for His fucking Majesty.” The sarcastic exclamation made Bertrum sniff with a thought. He wasn’t the brightest candle in the gunpowder store. Badger was red in the face, he took a double take at Bertrum’s face, far above his own. He finally looked away before his colleague opened his overbiting mouth again.
“R- are we really?” Bertrum asked the question, being oblivious to Badger’s sarcasm. Badger shot up, standing as straight as he could despite the hunch, and stared at Bertrum so hard that he could almost burst his rounded eyes open.
“Get down ‘ere! Get down,” he shouted at him, scrambling out of the grave as quickly as possible, using the step ladder to boost him up. Bertrum saw what was coming but was out of his shorter companion’s grasp before he came too close. One word wrong and he was at the mercy of a crop or stick or whatever was close to hand at the time. This time it was a shovel.
Bertrum made several strides around the headstone before ending up on the other side of the hole that they’d both spent the last hour digging in turn.
“Down! Now!” Sneered Badger, pointing into the hole with a free finger.
Bertrum held onto his hat as he tentatively put on foot down into the hole, groping with his old boot to find purchase on the stepladder. When he finally found his way into the hole he looked up at the underlit Badger and blinked at the sting of the light. Bertrum held his hands up for the shovel, wincing.
Badger half-threw the spade into the hole beside Bertrum with a thud and watched him look down to try and find the tool. He turned away in disgust and fiddled with the inside of his patchy cloak to find the leafwrap cigarettes in his pouch. It was another way for him to keep warm, he thought, and Bertrum didn’t need to think or know that. The scraping of metal on dirt continued. He quickly lit one with the inside flame of the lamp and puffed out the long smoke that replaced the condensating breath from his lips. He put his fingers into his armpits and squinted further into the graveyard, feeling the cold biting at his flesh now. Only his lungs were warm now. He watched the surroundings, not expecting constabulary. He saw the trees out there, like thick, skeletal fingers trying to escape the earth and scratch at the sky.
Something, there, in the vague beyond, was moving. He furrowed his brow at it, wondering if it was there or not. He wondered, for a few moments, if it was just some animal or a branch of a tree swaying in the wind. The problem with that, he knew, was that there was no wind.
A loud thud that echoed out from behind made him jump with a start. The leafwrap fell from his lips and he almost choked from the sudden intake of the smoke in alarm. Badger turned, coughing, and took off his hat to beat Bertrum with it. He couldn’t reach his colleague from where he stood and could barely see him in the dark pit. Instead Badger threw the insults at Bertrum, thick and strong before he realised what had happened.
Bertrum had reached the grave. The two laughed to themselves, sharing the moment. Soon they would find out what treasures are in this grave and what they could fence, selling on to others and letting them eat and keep on living for just that little longer.
Badger dropped down into the grave, snickering and rubbing his hands as he prepared himself. More dirt was cleared aside since they couldn’t just open it. Just a few inches here and there and the uneven layer covering the thick wood beneath them was free to be opened to the new age. Bertrum scooped out more dirt at its side for them to stand upon while they wedged the coffin open. Bertrum stood up and put a hand to Badger. Something about the other’s body language made Badger hesitate.
“Ere… what if it’s one ah them cursed coffins?” He queried.
Badger looked at him, not sure if he was serious or not. This was the first time that Bertrum had ever asked that question. It was a particularly stupid question when the two had dug up graves in this cemetery for the last months, so Badger gave him a sharp strike to the arm.
After Bertrum had stopped whining, or perhaps during it, Badger heard something from above. It wasn’t either of the two, scrambling away in the dirt. He peered over the lip of the pit. The lantern burnt into his eyes but he tried to look beyond that, into the black beyond.
Figures, moving in the black of beyond.
“Shit,” he sneered.
“What is-” asked Bertrum, who took to the step to help him look over the edge. Badger quickly dragged him down from the lip. He took the spade from Bertrum and held it to his chest. At least he was armed now. “Who’s tha?”
“Shut up, Bert!” Badger chided.
He started to panic. Who was that? What did they want? Town guard? This far out? He would hang. They both would, but Badger would hang. Badger caught Bertrum looking over the lip and he could hear the heavy footsteps of whomever that was out there. Badger jabbed the shovel into Bertrum’s leg, unable to swing it in the close confines of the dirthole. Bertrum yelped at the pain and crashed down into the floor. Badger shifted himself before he was able to cover his colleague’s mouth with his hand.
Then he remembered the lantern above them, sitting like a beacon to anyone else who would look their way.
He sharply threw his hand out above him, groping amongst the discarded earth in a desperate search for the light. Above him he could see the light broken by the shadows of his fingers and Badger cursed himself.
His hand touched hot, scolding glass and his hand curled from the pain. He fingered the metal of the lantern and brought it just within his grasp, all the while fearing the attention of those figures in the dark.
His hand constricted at the wrist. A heavy pressure held it in place, something heavy viced itself around his forearm with a painful strength. With a tentative fear Badger looked up, over the lip. He caught sight of Bertrum, who looked up too, and his face had fallen. Above Badger, with a severe hold on his arm, was one of the biggest creatures that he’d ever seen.
The light of the lantern glowered up into its face, casting shadow on the stocky build above him. Greenskin. An actual greenskin, here, in the borderlands, sneered down at Badger. It was fat, with a stomach twice the size of Badger. Tusks protruded from its mouth and the glint from the eye told him that it was hungry.
Bertrum gave out a whelp that was more like a cry as Badger, by his arm, was lifted out of the grave. Badger couldn’t take his eyes from the greenskin but around it he could see that there were more. Greenskins of various shapes and sizes made their way through the graveyard, meandering through the stones looking for who knows what. Badger saw it all yet kept his eyes at the one before him. His arm grew more painful as it took his entire weight. Badger quickly thought of the plan to knock it about its face with the shovel still in his other hand.
The orc looked on at him, his face looking more hungry than any emotion a human could make. It rang him about a little, and with an involuntary scream from Badger popped his arm from his socket. Badger kept screaming through the pain and threw what he could through his one good arm and at the greenskin. The shovel came about in an arc and with a thud that echoed off of the tombs and stone walls connected with its face. It smeared some of the blue paint on its face but the orc looked nonplussed, as if it never happened.
It gurgled a laugh from the stomach up and Badger knew what was coming.
Other greenskins had gathered at this point. One of them, smaller than the one that held Badger at mercy, pointed out to another that there was something else here too. Three of them groped downwards and managed to gain a purchase of Bertrum’s clothing. Badger could hear him crying as they tried. When they managed to get a firm grip the three dragged him out. Although Badger’s sight was growing black from the pain he tried so desperately to block out by pulling himself up onto the greenskin’s arm. He was batted away each time, held in place, and barely registered the image of Bertrum’s legs as they kicked out in all directions. He couldn’t hear the screaming either as the three had surrounded him and tore away at a mess of hands and flesh.
After a time, Bertrum had stopped kicking.
Badger didn’t notice. His world was black and no lantern could show him otherwise.
+ + +
When he came to, Badger’s whole world was upside down. He was dangling by his feet. Thick, old rope held his feet together and in place as he rotated in a spot. As he awoke he jerked as he remembered where he was, what he was doing. His arm was a mess of pain, tied up and behind his back with his other. His shoulder throbbed, just like his face. He was a bright red and approaching purple from the blood that ran to his head.
In his swimming daze he struggled to look around. Next to him was another hanging body, Bertrum. He wasn’t sure if he was alive or dead. Below him was the grave. He looked into the pit and saw the wooden coffin below, almost mocking him, taunting him his fate to be.
Greenskins were all around, paying no real heed to the pair that hung on the wooden frame. The greenskins hadn’t brought that with them so they had used a nearby cart. Some of them had piling up wood near the hole. The large one, the one that had grabbed Badger was nowhere to be seen.
When Badger came to for the second time there were a number of greenskins building a fire and erecting a spit – a long metal pole with sharp ends that told him exactly what was going to happen. Without him realising there was a grubby looking greenskin looking at Bertrum. It grabbed him by the cheeks in one hand and pushed his lips together to reveal his teeth. It jabbed him with a crooked finger and Bertrum woke up with a start. The creature hobbled over to Badger next and stared at him with beady yellow eyes.
It slapped him, making Badger blink through the pain. Then it prodded him in the shoulder. Badger’s face tightened in response, willing himself not to shout out. He failed, causing a number of greenskins to look over to him. Badger didn’t realise that his doublet and tunic had been removed until this one put the knife to his abdomen.
It was cold but it didn’t hurt. The dagger traced down his chest and made the motion across his throat, just below the jawline.
Badger spat at him.
The greenskin smacked him in the nose with its forehead and blood flaired down Badger’s face from his nostrils.
Bertrum looked over to Badger.
Badger didn’t meet his look but the greenskin did. It strode back over to Bertrum and grabbed him by the tuft of hair on his head. He opened up his throat with one practiced cut of his knife. Blood poured from severed arteries and spilt down into the opened grave below, spilling onto the ancient wood of the coffin below.
Badger, reeling from his broken nose, barely felt his hair being tugged upon with the bony fingers of the butcher orc. He felt the cold press of the sharp steel against his neck and his eyes, like his throat, opened up in the grim realisation of what was happening.
Together with Bertrum’s blood, Badger’s blood fell from his body as it began draining from his body. Badger still lived even with his esophagus split open like a fig. As the black encroached on the edges of his vision he watched his blood pool into the grave along with Bertrum’s.
Badger was bleeding out, gasping for air in his last minutes. Eventually his body stopped twitching as the muscles gave up on oxygen for the last time.
Bertrum and Badger hung dead. The last of their blood dripping from their lifeless bodies.
+ + +
In the dark of the grave blood pooled against the disturbed dirt and centuries old wood. The wood had cracked ever so slightly from the weight of earth and the boots of graverobbers and now the spilled blood of those who hung above. Now, with one gaseous bubble of foetid decay, the blood slowly dripped inside the coffin.
In the utter black of the interior, red slowly made its way down. Dribbling through the small crack, blood trickled onto the jaw of Hans Geiger, who lay still in that confined space. His flesh had long gone, bored away by the creatures that exist beyond sight, in the dark corners of the dirt and earth below our feet. At first it collected in the crook between tooth and bone until a thin sliver almost shot between the valley of the incisors. Tension gathered at the lip of the tooth before the reservoir of blood built beyond the limit. Again the liquid dripped, this time falling into the long dead mouth of the skeleton body.
A single finger bone twitched, and another – a hand of thin bone flinched as if burnt and both clenched together. Dust stirred after lying for so long undisturbed. A kneebone shot up and collided with the wood of the coffin, creating a loud crack that filled the long gone ears. Elbows creaked as they moved, hands, like nails, flung themselves out at the coffin lid without knowing what they were doing. The remains of the body that once was flailed about without it senses at first, knocking against the confined areas around it – bare wood and the rotted clothing that was once worn regally and fresh to the grave knocked against each other in violence.
More of the graverobber blood dropped into the mouth of the skull.
+ + +
Outside, above the hole and above the dirt, the living drank and ate around built fires, paying no heed to the unmoving bodies of Bertrum and Badger. More so, barely any of them could hear the knocking from below. The thrashing skeleton beneath them signalled no danger to those who heard nothing.
Those who did hear turned from their frivolous activities, stirred by curiousity that had their curiousity spurned towards the grave behind them. Three greenskins turned from the drinking and shouting and looked to the hanging bodies. One of them grunted something and the smaller greenskin from before – the one who had slaughtered Bertrum and Badger – hobbled back to the pair of hanging meats. It eyed them precariously, squinting its baleful eyes and prodding them with a bony finger of its own.
Nothing. Nothing happened. It took the same knife as before and checked the flaps that once were necks. The blood that dried and crusted around the edges could still give way to more of the thick red liquid but there was none left that could flow.
Beneath it, in the black of the grave, something stirred. Beneath its crooked nose the greenskin looked, its eyes working to pierce the gloom. Something was there, lighter in contrast than the rest. At first it thought that it could see flesh. Maybe the coffin had been open, it thought. Maybe these two slabs of meat had actually gotten further than he’d thought.
Maybe, just maybe, there was something more interesting in there than he’d previously thought. The greed overcame him. He’d known that some of the other greenskins were superstitious about disturbing graves but that didn’t stop them from making camp around them. There was no doubt that this particular tribe didn’t care to disturb the dead and left this grave as they’d found it.
Horcloc rubbed his fingers together, never meeting the palms with their tips, and lowered himself into the hole. He’d been a climber all of his life, even from being a proper little snotling, and his first foot squelched into the congealing blood pool as if it were mud after rains.
Horcloc licked his teeth, even the ones that weren’t there, and pushed his fingers into the crevice of the coffin’s edge. When he put his legs to the side of the wooden slats that made the treasure box he’d realised that the coffin had been opened before.
“Stupid apes,” he muttered to himself. Leaving treasure and getting eaten. “Stupid, silly silly.” Horcloc tutted, shaking his head.
The coffin didn’t creak so much as yawned open. Horcloc was greeted with the grinning face of the skeleton in the coffin – no, in his treasure chest. He paused, almost stunned, as it looked directly at him.
He hesitated. Maybe they were right to be suspicious. Maybe this was cursed ground.
Maybe he was being a fool. Maybe, yes, maybe that helm would fit his head and maybe that noseguard can be removed to make way for his large, crooked nose.
Horcloc pushed the cover away and propped it up against the dirt wall.
“No maille,” he hissed under his breath. “Plate… rotted gamby… “Not so shiny shiny, humie hume,” he stated, waggling a long finger at the face. He inspected the rest of what he saw. Almost rotted tabard, defying the ages with its crimson shade. “Boots!” He checked before pouting with “not my size. Never Horcloc’s size.”
His eyes shone at the blade that had fallen from the hands. A sword big enough for cleaving, curved and notched from use in life. Not that Horcloc cared. A weapon is a weapon. He looked at the dulled blade before picking it up, snatching it from the skeleton’s side as if it were still alive. He stroked it before looking at it, keeping his beady yellow eyes at its previous owner’s face, watching for signs of life.
“No. No chance living. Dead now. Silly orcs think living, dead, living.” He chopped the air with his hand to make the point. His attention came back to the cleaver.
Thin arms with thin, bony fingers slowly, so astonishingly slowly, grasped the handle of the weapon. The greenskin watched, shocked into paralysation as it happened whilst he sat there in the dirt and the musty, age old air. Although there saw the skull’s face grinning at him he knew, he could tell that it was frowning with ancient, mirthless hate.
Its movement was silent. There was neither creaking nor the cracking of bones. Rotted fur between pauldrons softened the clanking of metal and the arm’s grip was as sure and as strong as if it were still alive. As it held its place it stared at Horcloc, bringing itself closer and closer to him, holding him in place. The greenskin was transfixed by the two red dots in the sockets of where the eyes once were. They were filled with hate, and they hated Horcloc.
The greenskin shrank into the wall, pushing himself away from the undead warrior, shuffling into the corner and kicking himself to safety. It wasn’t safe though. The skeleton firmly held onto his blade as Horlock crawled away from him. It rose to its feet after century upon untold century of lying down beneath the ground.
It looked up at the hanging men. If it recognised anything about them it gave no sign and slowly returned its hollow, intelligent gaze to the greenskin in the corner of the open grave. The acrid stench of ammonia reeked in steam that rose from the greenskin’s breeches.
The armoured skeleton rose its arm into the air. The cleaver in its hand tasted the fresh air above him with a deliberate move before it came down. The heavy arc dropped and buried its edge into Horcloc’s collar, splitting the greenskin’s neck and shoulder apart right down into its chest. The blade did not twist but was pulled away freely.
Horcloc voided himself. The skeletal killer pushed its hand, like clawed talons, into the wound. Bringing his hand away it smeared what gore was there onto the remains of its mouth. Crimson smeared its teeth, brown and decayed from such lengthy neglect whilst excess dripped down through his unfleshed jaw and onto his breastplate.
The beady red eyes of the revenant held the remains of his hand up into the air and the night sky’s midnight blue behind it. He gazed at his long thin bones that reached out like the skeletal wings of a long dead bird. To anyone but himself, in those moments it was impossible to know what the undead butcher was thinking. It curled its hand open and closed, as if coming to see what it had become long after the last of his flesh had putrefied, decomposed and eaten away by the creatures in the earth.
He smiled at it – it was impossible for the face of the inevitable to do anything else. He had some vague collection of what he was, but not who he was, but his name came to him. Geiger. Hans Geiger. He tried to think deeper but he only drew a blank.
The bodies above him caught his attention and he twisted his skull to watch. A light breeze caught them and the skeleton stared at them both. Then the raucous noise filtered itself into what was left of his senses.
Clawing his way from his grave the undead figure rose from an age of inexistence.
Horcloc’s death went unnoticed by the greenskin camp. Their raucous laughter and tearing at meat continued, not noticing the walking dead behind them all.
+ + +
– by Kier Sparey
© Copyright Kier Sparey 2016