New agonies stabbed up through his legs as he rose, scuffing ice from his face and warning the babbling magician to be quiet. Black homespun wreathed the approaching creature like the shrouds enrobing the dead of the general’s own tribe, filling him with a pious dread that almost overcame him. From his tattered cloak of felt the shaman drew a bird-bone rattle and began to shake it at the visitant with a hand browned by a forgotten sun. Without preamble or introduction, it ceased its advance and addressed them, speaking in the magician's own tongue, the narrow stripe of skin between the windings of its veil so kindred to the snow that its gaze appeared to float amid the storm itself. The shaman stuttered an imperfect version of the creature’s address.
“This shaitan will lead us over the pass. For this kindness, it will accept all of the gold that your chieftain has given you to...” He turned to his companion, clutching his rattle. At last beholding a member of the race he had been commissioned to destroy, the general took a measure of its form, from where its feet stood bare upon the snow to its golden eyes, seeing nothing he could recognize, not honour nor loathing, compassion or impelling greed.
“I did not march from the Blue Lake to be murdered like an old woman.” he muttered. The creature received the news phlegmatically and gave a swift reply.
“The shaitan says that it will go back onto the mountain, and wait... wait... until we are all dead, then it will take the gold!” the shaman cried. Behind them those soldiers still sensible began to struggle to their feet, clutching their blankets and crying out in support of the shaman. Their leader pulled his hide about him and lowered his short frame to the ground.
“Look at this beast for yourselves and ask what use it has for gold. It does not come down from the Tien Shan to hunt coins. I am old, the snow will take my legs, and I will not waste my last breath haggling with demons. This shaitan will have nothing from me.” The figure in question recognized the unblenching finality of the general’s judgement and turned from their party, heading back toward the west.
At the urging of the shaman the detachment surged after it, stumbling into each other in their desperation, the blown snow flying from their heaving shoulders as they toiled through the drifts. The stranger led them down a slow incline and onto the floor of the valley lying between two ice-collared peaks of fractured stone where the snow thinned, blown to the sides of the cirque by the gale, and where the footing became firmer, allowing the men to coalesce. Their squinting gasps became rigid grins as they began to credit their good fortune, turning to each other behind their guide. It was in the midst of their hysterical acclaim that some saw the black-garbed creature disappear before their streaming eyes, swallowed as if by some drape of snow; they shuffled forward, discovering a shallow hole piercing the ground on which they stood, no wider than a swan's wing. Black water slopped from its jagged margins.
A sound like cracking stone and tearing flesh flew with the faults that opened across the frozen lake in three directions, its surface tilting with their weight. Beneath them, the solitary creature waited in waters thrumming with the supple groaning of the ice then glutted with their hapless bodies, plunging and thrashing as they were dashed into the lake, their flooded garments and leather cloaks binding their limbs like sheets of lead. The ice righted itself, clashing and merging on the surface and crushing their clawing limbs, sealing them under the floes while their screams belched silver and they drowned, struggles fitfully degrading, their hair and clothing rising as though blown behind their sinking forms.
Their guide stroked back slowly through the drifting bodies in a blue haze returned once more to silence. At the eastern shore of the lake he stood his feet on the silty bed and cracked the frozen surface with his shoulders, stepping out onto snow that had already overwritten the ploughed tracks of his victims.
It gave the general no joy to see he had been proven wiser than the rest, and he fell ponderously sideways in his effort to meet his end with a modicum of dignity, struggling up onto his frozen knees. Despite the twinned blades sheathed on his back, the creature raised a hand only to stroke the water from his face as he walked on past without a glance toward him, heading north into the snow.
Susan leant through the kitchen door into darkness, turning her head in search of the ringtone rendition of Ave Maria's opening chords that had exhausted her patience while she sorted laundry in the adjacent garage. The blinking flourescence overhead revealed three paper bags stuffed with groceries on the formica table, her own name blocked in black felt pen on top of each; the bottom of one had darkened with some internal mishap and she pushed through the manga-branded pot noodles and pillowy bags of marshmallows until her fingers found a carton of gourmet ice cream from which the contents had escaped. It had drowned a clutch of croissants and begun to leak onto the table. Employing both arms, she made a careful attempt to shift the sack toward the sink, exclaiming loudly as it gave way and dumped melted dairy down her legs into her mary janes. The forgotten telephone began flashing brightly on the bench as it replayed the offending jingle.
William responded neither to his name nor title in any portion of the ground floor. Clutching the telephone in her determination to visit it upon him, she sighted movement through the drawing room doors; the damp grass swept the icecream from her shoes as she marched out through the cricket song and darkness toward the pool, where a figure swam laps in the fresh charge of water. He alternated between its surface and the unlit depths, undulant motion rippling the motifs on his back amid his unremitting toil. Susan stood on the tiles and frowned for a moment before leaning over with the telephone chiming in her hand.
"Mr Lamb... Mr Lamb... I think this is yours. You might want to answer it." she called.
The swimmer abandoned his trajectory, stroking through the water until he broke the surface almost at her feet. Grasping the stone with both hands, he hauled out swiftly, the element he departed sliding back over his shoulders, falling from the black shorts at his waist and the long white arms he lifted and shook out in a gesture of startling, whiplash violence. Astonished, Susan stepped backward as he took the phone from her hand.
"This is private property." he told her, his stare like a fist to her face.
"I'm sorry..." she offered; he arrested her retreat, his white hand cold on her wrist while he examined the appliance. She exclaimed and tried to pull free, which he did not allow until William stepped down through the French doors and waved to catch his attention. She looked between them, startled by the resemblance that had inspired her mistake, imperfect though it proved in actuality.
"Hey, Edward Lamb, meet Susan Christabel, la déesse du foyer." his brother called, though his intervention was rendered redundant, Susan hurrying back toward the house without acknowledging him.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce