Through the arch another day declared an end, recalling the colour loaned to the vaulting overhead and leaving them in variated monochromes. Her gaze followed the fluted shapes in stone toward the wall, noting for the first time that it bore an image in the plaster elsewhere dissolved and sloughed away, the robust and wide-eyed figure of a mounted saint. His halo seemed no less sturdy than his plicated robe, its royal blue deposed by natron grey where the tempera proved as perished and forgotten as the order that had raised the remote redoubt.
From somewhere overhead the smell of another fire issued its primal invitation, en suite with the echoed, disjunct sounds of someone moving with a purpose she could scarcely envision, pain and torpor having pupated into something far more comprehensive. In its depths she was grateful for the enclosing seclusion provided by the surrounding structure, a quality promoted from its former station as the blandest facet of entitlement and beatified alongside the faded saint. Her pack lay against the wall, half-gutted of its contents. Banks of needles crowded the corners of the chamber, sere tokens of abandonment and solitude.
She rolled onto her side and was struck immediately by a sensation like the intrusion of a blade, an outward-looping vertigo drawing back the walls and floor as though on rubber bands. They swayed, one version doubled over the other, returning only as the agony began to slacken, leaving her tightly knotted. Susan opened her mouth to breathe and inched backward onto her shoulders, the taste of festering gore flushed from under her tongue as she stroked her broken tooth and the flesh that pounded all around it. Though startled by the hinges grinding by the rust-streaked door she lay still as Sachiin eased a dark shape balanced on his head around the partition, a copper pail in each hand, nodding the bundle of fraying fabric onto the floor and arranging its cache of fresh pine needles against the wall. With the same discretion he set down the carton of cigarettes beneath his arm, letting himself onto his knees beside the smaller pail.
"It'll be warm for about ten more minutes." Allowing for her apathy, he waited half that time before reaching back into her pack for her face cloth. "The drool is fucking with your bloodstains now, poupée..." he added, attempting remediation from which she rolled toward the wall despite the toll exacted by her tooth. Sitting back, he sighed and took up the box of cigarettes, plucking the golden tab encircling its cellophane and drawing out the crisp, beguiling sounds of its removal.
"Just give me one and go away." she croaked, clearing her throat.
"I thought you were giving up." he smiled to himself, sitting the damp, balled flannel on the side of her head when she did not reply. Susan turned again toward him, dark stare framed by strands of rain-washed hair and fluvial deposits, then dragged herself onto her hands, leaning over the bucket to lap the water from its rim. "How's your tooth?"
"Where is everyone?" she murmured, lapsing back against the stone.
"He's out jerking off somewhere. Haven't seen Pet yet."
She lay still.
"Now I can't call him Edward." He waited for her to elaborate with the same forbearance, two fresh cigarettes parked between his teeth. "It sounds... wrong... once you've seen him... doing things."
“I know. It's like calling Satan Toodles. Kar-lar-amaat-yah…” he suggested in a lugubrious tone, though she did not seem to have heard him. Squinting, Sachiin lit the cigarettes and piped the smoke from the corner of his mouth. "Allez... a problem shared is everybody’s problem.” He shrugged at her lack of response. "Well, I've got nowhere else to go, so y..."
“Stop being so fucking nice..." she snapped. He glanced around himself uncertainly. "I ran away and left you, alright? They could have been... ripping your fucking arms off...” The feeble glow from the arch diminished again as the sun dropped beyond the unseen horizon. Sachiin folded his legs.
“I can't say how it looked to you, but I don't think we were ever going to be dancing around with their nutsacks on our heads, so don't feel like you stole our chance at glory. If you hadn't been there, personally I’d still be headed downstream like there was a fucking inboard up my arsehole." He smiled and offered her a cigarette. "We made it out in three good pieces... pas de probléme." A glance related the inadequacy of his assurances and he reclaimed the damp cloth, warming it once more in the bucket. She did not protest its application. "I've always thought the chick who wrote The Art of War should have done one called the art of not getting into shit in the first place, but then none of the hot mess headed for the front line actually fucking read, do they? I mean, I look like I fell out of a fucking cement mixer and I didn't get that way smoking a bowl in a titty bar after bugging out of Nuristan before I got my head kicked in..." he laughed. "And that's because I'm a retard. But like I said, pas de probléme... if you live, pick up your ninja wings... you just qualified. As for running like a little bitch, I think that was me powering right past you. I probably pushed you over trying to put on speed."
She closed her eyes again against his arguments.
"You're not fucking useless... I am. I can't carry my pack, you had to go back and get it... I can't do fucking anything."
"Silence, mortal." Sachiin pronounced. "Would I steal a box of home-brand Ukranian cigarettes from a vampyre for a useless person? I went back for your pack because I'm too much of a fucking gimp to watch you suffer." He lifted the end of the sleeping bag and made a quick survey of her feet. "That's not heroic, and it's all bullshit anyway... heroic people are just impatient cowards. The dickhead who throws himself on the grenade is the same dickhead who would have bolted like everybody else if he'd thought about it, but then boom... he's human stucco, and stucco can't express regret. So stop feeling bad, immediately. How's your tooth?"
She drew her feet beneath the covers.
“Pet doesn't want me here.”
“Did she say that?"
"She didn't have to."
"Ouais, she's suffering you in silence because politeness is like a religion to her." he laughed, rolling his eyes. "Christabel, you just startled her dead arse.” He reached back toward her boots. “Come on... you can bring your hump upstairs.”
With the night settling around them she could not reconcile the ruin’s shape with her uncertain memories, following a curving case of steps cut into the boss of stone shrugged out from the mountainside like something worn upon its shoulder. The pain in her skull flared with the effort of the ascent but she kept her hand from her face and her head down, mouth pressed tightly against any verbal demonstration. The colonnade shared its contour with a surmounting parapet, castellated by ragged failures and dressed with supple, intrepid birches, their white shapes persisting in the darkness. It hemmed the eastern edge of a roof yard, bare but for an orphaned bench and narrow wooden table silvered by the elements. The supporting ridge rose sheerly to the west in a face like blank ship steel before leaning once more away. Behind an arm of rolling cloud the moon paid scant regard to the land laid out beneath her, couching it in flattened shades of sooty black and benthic blue. No light or road or sign of habitation troubled the darkness.
“Where is this?” Susan asked, the sleeping bag still clasped around her shoulders.
“It’s all Dacia to me. But it’s very roomy and scenic, poupée, honestly... no rent, no…” Sachiin extended the syllable and then smiled again, gesturing toward the steps. “Look, they have piglets...”
A small and strangely-formed intruder skipped up onto the roof with an air of slight, inquiring disapprobation, quadrupedal, jacketed in longitudinal stripes of creme, sable and russet and wearing a pair of bat-like ears on its narrow head. Small bronze eyes followed a questing snout; the piglet paused, peering at her suspiciously before trotting across the flags on tiny hooves and placing its nose against her leg in a brief, assertive nudge. Susan bent down to touch its back but was checked hard by her tooth, an imposition it scurried from anyway with its tail erect. From the same steps came the ruin’s heavily-swathed chatelaine, coat fastened about her neck as though the swiftly-settling cold demanded it. An almost clockwork transit took her along the parapet, though for a moment the vampyre paused and frowned at the sight of her porcine companion standing on its hind hooves and gazing up at Sachiin, who stroked its velvet ears and picked it up.
“My little darlink Fyodor.” Petrouchka sighed. Her stare settled on Susan, who had sat down on the stony margin and embraced herself beneath her quilted cloak. “You... walk to here?" Her guest nodded without looking up. “My god. Now I know why you look such a horror.” The observation finally commanded Susan's attention, but the steps projected the small sounds of Edward’s approach, distracting them both. He carried a pair of loosely gracile shapes in the crook of his arm; two hares twitched stiffly in the rigor of their recent deaths when he lay them in her lap, the warm blood oozing from their mouths soaking her jeans while one kicked against her stomach. Susan sat imprisoned between dread and disbelief, looking up at him with both flagged in her expression. His mouth drew back over his teeth in a strange, embryonic expression of contempt, its brevity integral to its power.
“Where would you be if nothing ever died for your convenience?” he asked her. Across the yard the vampyre tisked and rolled her stony eyes, both of them watching Susan rise and let the dead beasts slide onto the flags before retreating to the corner of the parapet. Sachiin berated him acidly. "Sis'thle vahd'ya si srihyaan." Edward muttered as he quit them. Fresh tears slid down her face as she turned it toward the gorge, her misery unwittingly compounded by its spectators. Petrouchka regarded Sachiin implacably from across the yard as he concluded his admonition.
"Avai'sahdi..." he sighed, looking back to Susan. "I'm sorry... I do have to go and walk the river. If we have to get out of here we need to know where to get across." She sat hunched as he kissed her head and took the stairs himself.
C O N T I N U E D N E X T W E E K
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce