Aphelion Issue 233, Volume 22
October 2018
 
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The Trap Master

by Rab Foster




The cart climbed towards the moor, swaying and creaking as its wheels laboured over rocks and through potholes, rattling and jangling as a hundred things hanging on hooks and straps bounced against its sides.

The driver, a grey-haired and grey-bearded man, squinted beyond the horns of the four oxen straining against the cart’s yoke-beams. Ahead, the track they were following passed through a grove of trees that formed a rare feature on the bare, wind-scoured slope. After emerging from the trees, the track continued to ascend until it disappeared over a ridge marking the moor’s edge. Points along the ridge glowed redly as if fires were burning on its far side.

The cart neared the trees and the driver saw that their tangling branches weren’t just flecked with green leaves. They contained black flecks too, which moved. He became aware of a noise, a chorus of rasping voices, and he realised the trees were filled with crows.

Then the cart tottered in between them and the crows on the lower branches, alarmed by the creaking, rattling intruder, flapped and scrabbled onto the higher ones.

The cart was almost clear of the grove when the driver noticed something about the last tree standing by the track. It bore only leaves, not black, cawing birds. He peered upwards, trying to work out why it was crow-less. He also groped sideways. Propped against his seat was a wooden stave that he used for prodding or walloping the oxen when they became too slow. Resting next to the stave, meanwhile, was a discoloured old sword –

A man who’d been hiding in the last treetop sprang down onto the cart. He landed on the load it was carrying and sprawled as things shifted under him – wicker baskets, tubes of rolled netting, spools of rope and chain. The driver jumped up from his seat and twisted around. With no more time to reach the sword, he instead snatched the wooden stave. Lifting it, he unwittingly knocked the sword from its perch and sent it clattering down the cart’s side. Then the driver started beating at the man while he lay straddling the load.

A few moments later the driver paused in his assault for he realised this man was really a youth – indeed, with his lanky arms and legs, he looked like a big, ungainly boy. Immediately, one of the youth’s hands shot up and seized the end of the stave and there followed a tug-of-war as both tried to wrench the stave out of the other’s grasp. The driver finally won and tore it free, but the violence with which he did so caused him to lose his balance. He fell down the side of the cart, as the sword had fallen a minute earlier.

Out of the trees now, the cart had stopped. Indifferent to what was happening behind them, the oxen stood with their snouts in the vegetation at the track’s sides, their rough wet tongues seeking out the clumps of grass that grew occasionally amid the ferns, heather and thistles.

While he lay on the ground, the driver thundered to himself: a boy, an insolent whelp of a boy, trying to steal my cart! Then he grasped the spokes of the nearest cartwheel and attempted to hoist himself onto his feet. He’d pulled himself as high as the wheel’s upper rim when there was an eruption of pain in his side. Spluttering, he dropped again.

Back on the ground, the driver watched helplessly as the youth clambered down a rope ladder hanging against the load. He descended awkwardly because innumerable dangling bits and pieces got in his way, but finally he stood next to where the driver lay incapacitated. The youth bent over him and sneered, “Now so heroic now, are you, old man?”

“I’m…” croaked the driver, “not… old!” The pain in his side was fading. With luck, it was just a temporary effect of the blow he’d received when he struck the ground. Meanwhile, he took in the youth’s attire. His clothes were ragged but on one hand he wore an incongruous mail-and-leather gauntlet. Strapped to his back was a bundle with three sword hilts protruding from its top. And several things were fastened to his belt – a visor, a pair of stirrups, a poniard and a sharp-pointed metal star that was undoubtedly a throwing weapon.

By now the driver had recovered enough to talk steadily. “So who are you? A robber, I suppose?”

The youth remembered he was carrying weapons. He reached behind him and clumsily prised one of the swords out of his back-bundle, then directed it towards the driver’s chest. The last inches of steel had snapped off the sword-blade and left it without a point. “Oh yes,” he said. “I’m a robber. A master robber. And I’m here to rob you of your wagonload.”

Then the youth stepped back and viewed the cart. “That is, if you have anything worth stealing.” The main load was piled in a great crooked hump and consisted of cages, crates, barrels, baskets, furled nets and coiled chains and ropes. The load’s sides, and the cart’s sides lower down, were festooned with smaller items like shovels, mallets, axes, saws and billhooks. But also hanging there were strange-looking devices with components of jagged metal. Some resembled steel jaws or claws. Others resembled sinister steel flowers with razor-edged petals and dagger-like thorns.

“Traps!” he said brightly. “That’s what you are. A trapper!”

“A master trapper,” muttered the driver on the ground. “A trap master.”

The youth saw how the cart’s sides were decorated with trophies too – a hairy pelt, a huge pair of horns and a single horn that was long and straight with a spiralling groove. Then he noticed a row of hanging flagons and demanded, “What’s in those?”

“Scent.”

The youth pulled a cork out of one flagon and sniffed inside it. He recoiled, his young face suddenly wizened in disgust. “Scent? No lady in her right mind would allow a drop of that shit near her!”

The driver sighed. “It’s animal scent, you idiot. I slather my traps with it to disguise the smell of me.”

“No animals,” protested the youth, “smell as foul as that!”

“Oh, some do,” said the driver mysteriously. “Though you may not know what they are or where to find them. And if you did encounter one, you mightn’t live to tell the tale.”

By now the youth had spotted something else attached to the cart. “Ah!” he said. Suddenly the tough tone of voice he’d been using gave way to a more innocent tone. “They’re pretty.” Fastened halfway up the load was a plume of feathers whose white, brown and gold colours seemed somehow to glow and overlap in a hallucinogenic shimmer. Deciding the driver was too stricken to be any threat, the youth returned the broken sword to his back and started up the rope ladder again. He grasped at the feathers with the hand that wasn’t inside the gauntlet.

Next to the youth, two wooden panels on the cart’s side burst apart and revealed a window, indicating that the cart wasn’t simply a flat surface with cargo loaded on top of it but contained a small compartment too. A little shaggy head and two thin arms shot out of the window. This child gripped a wooden cudgel that was promptly driven into the youth’s ribs. The youth howled, fell off the ladder and thudded onto the ground. Meanwhile, the driver, now in less pain, scrambled to the spot where the sword lay. He retrieved it, lurched back to the youth and jammed the sword-edge against his throat.

“I haven’t sharpened this for ages,” the driver explained. “It’ll be messy if I cut your throat with it. You’ll take a long time to die. In agony, obviously.”

The youth whimpered. Above the driver, he saw his little assailant scramble out of the window and down the rope ladder. The child was barefoot but wore a sleeveless tunic and baggy breeches fastened around the waist with a cord.

Bare feet on the ground, the child demanded, “Are you alright, dad?”

“I think so. I got a knock after this robber – this master robber – attacked me, but I’m better now.” The driver glowered downwards. “You’re no robber. You’re a scavenger. The swords, the gauntlet, the things on your belt… You’ve been looting on the moor, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” stammered the youth, aware that the wrathful face above him no longer resembled that of a helpless old man. He looked towards the child’s face in the hope that it might show some mercy, but it was equally hostile. He decided he’d better keep talking. “There isn’t much left. General Staal’s men picked it over first. Then the people living in the valleys, the shepherds, hunters and foresters, came and picked it over too. And today…” A note of superstitious fear crept into voice. “The ghost-crawlers have appeared.”

The driver sighed and removed the blade from the youth’s throat. He stood up and said to the child, “We’re probably too late. We’ve probably made this long journey for little or no reward. Still, I suppose we should at least look up there.” He turned his attention back to the youth. “Why did you attack us?”

“When I saw you at a distance, I thought your wagon might be a military one. Containing a group of General Staal’s men who’d come back for some reason. So I was frightened. I climbed into the tree. Then when I saw what you really were… Well, I decided to ambush you.” He added hurriedly, “I’m very sorry.”

The driver considered it. “Okay. We shan’t kill you. You’re not worth the effort of killing. You’d better scurry home. Yes, home’s the best place for a kid like you.”

Eagerly, the youth started to climb to his feet – only to have the driver clamp a hand on his shoulder and stop him. “Provided,” he continued, “you give me those three swords. I don’t care if they’re broken. Broken swords aren’t much use to you but I can do something with them. And that poniard and star on your belt. I’ll take them too.”

“But I found them. They’re mine!”

“Well, we’ll do a trade.” To the child, he said: “Fetch one of the gryphus feathers.” Then to the youth: “You can have it as a gift for your girlfriend.”

“How do you know I have a girlfriend?”

“The way you looked at the feathers. You appreciated their beauty. I doubt if your soul developed that appreciation of beauty by itself, so I assume some woman instilled it there.”

The child returned with the feather and they made the exchange. For a time the youth studied the rippling colours. “A gryphus feather, you say?”

“Yes.”

“But the gryphus is just a legend.”

“A living legend. There’s still a few around though, as I say, you wouldn’t know where to find them. Incidentally, if you boil that feather and then drink the water, it’s meant to be an aphrodisiac. Gives a man an eagle’s strength and a lion’s appetite.”

The youth gawked at him, unsure whether or not to believe this.

“Well,” said the driver, “time to move.” He placed the stave, his old sword and the youth’s damaged ones at the front of the cart and clambered up. The child gave the youth a final, threatening look, scaled the rope ladder again and disappeared through the window.

The driver prodded the oxen and the cart began to trundle on, immediately swaying again so that all the tools, traps and trophies on its sides resumed their rattling and jangling. The youth shouted after him, “You have a bold little boy!”

The driver looked over his shoulder and scowled. And the shaggy little head re-emerged from the window in the cart’s side.

A voice barked: “I’m a girl, actually!”


*****



The moor was a giant table of granite with peat smeared across its top. In places, protrusions of the granite burst through the peat and formed tors – precarious stacks of rock-slabs. The tors were separated by expanses of heather and bracken, and black, slimy pools, and occasional gorges in whose depths grew most of the moor’s trees.

The driver’s name was Kroziar. He dismounted from the cart and took a pelt down from the load. This he fastened about his neck, so that the pelt’s body hung around his body and its snouted head rested over his head. The pelt suggested a wolf, though one that was unnaturally big and man-shaped.

Today the moor offered sights besides the tors, heather, bracken, pools and gorges. Between Kroziar and the horizon burned half-a-dozen fires, their black smoke trailing in the wind. He saw too a distant congregation of tents that’d been one army’s field-headquarters. Those tents had nearly all collapsed and been trampled into the peat, so that from afar the camp looked like it’d been flattened beneath a giant fist. One flagpole remained standing and a flag continued to flutter. It was the flag of the losing army, the army General Staal had pulverised beneath his fist.

Everywhere, shapes littered the ground. Their outlines were obscured by prickles of heather and whorls of fern, but Kroziar knew that the larger shapes were dead horses and the smaller ones dead men.

Three sounds were audible – the wind moaning, flames crackling and crows cawing. Flocks of crows circled above the moor like tatters of blackened debris that’d swirled up from the fires.

He became aware of his daughter standing beside him. “Kayra,” he said, “if your mother were alive now, she’d curse me for bringing you here. But there’s just the two of us. We have to work together.” He placed a hand on her shoulder. “You’ll see some evil things out there but remember, evil dead things are of no consequence. They can’t harm you. What you have to watch for are evil living things.”

He lifted a pole off the cart, held it upright and forced its bottom end down into the peat until it stood by itself. Suspended on cords at the pole’s top were a dozen bells. The bells started swinging in the wind, their clappers clanging inside, their casings chiming against one another outside. “Wherever you go,” he said, “don’t pass beyond earshot of these. And once you’ve picked up a few things, come back and dump them. Don’t collect so many at one time that you have a heavy load to carry. Okay?”

“That youth,” said Kayra cautiously, “talked about ghost-crawlers.”

“That’s the name people in these parts have for guls. They’re a superstitious lot. They’re terrified of guls because they believe they have magical powers. But we know better, don’t we? We know how cowardly guls are. We know they won’t go near something unless it’s dead. That reminds me…” Kroziar went back to the cart and removed something else. He wrestled down a long implement with a wedge-shaped blade at one end and handles at the other. Kayra recognised it as a plough and wondered why her father had brought such a thing here.

“What worries me,” said her father as he carried the plough from the cart, “is that the battlefield might attract bigger scavengers. Bigger than crows. Bigger than guls, even.”

Kayra made her first forays across the moor. Sometimes she paused and listened to make sure she could still hear the bells behind her. She passed many bodies but soon realised, to her relief, that there was no point in searching them because anything the dead soldiers had been carrying had been looted already. It made more sense to look elsewhere. What was left of value on the moor now had been dropped by the soldiers while they charged, fought or fled.

She found a few things among the vegetation – a helmet, a leather satchel, a long two-pronged weapon like a pitchfork. Unsure of how useful they’d be to her father, she brought them back to the cart. The pitchfork was three times her own length and she had to drag it. Each time she returned, Kroziar worked mysteriously with the plough. He’d hitched it behind one of the oxen, knocked a stake into the ground and attached the ox’s halter to the stake with a rope. Then he steered the ox in a circle and forced the plough-blade through the coarse, peaty ground. This made a round furrow that was a few yards in diameter. As the ox kept orbiting the stake, the furrow broadened into a ditch.

Later, he abandoned the plough and dragged several corpses from the nearby moorland. He piled these in the centre of the circle. And finally he brought a few barrels from the cart, opened them and poured their contents along the bottom of the ditch until it resembled a moat surrounding a castle – one built gruesomely out of dead flesh. The substance from the barrels was grey and treacly and had a stench not unlike the stench of death that pervaded the moor.

Kroziar pushed back his wolf’s-head cap and rubbed the sweat from his forehead. “Whatever you do,” he told her, “don’t touch the stuff in that ditch.” Then he pointed to a spot in the sky a little above the western horizon. “I’m going to scavenge too. When the sun sinks to that level, return to the cart and don’t go off again. If I’m not back yet, wait for me. We should leave this moor before nightfall. The trees where we met that supposed robber will make a good place to stop and camp.”

During her next foray, Kayra had an uncomfortable feeling that she was being watched. She paused, not just to listen for the bells but to turn and check her surroundings. The fronds of bracken writhed in the wind and made the battlefield, a place of the dead, seem disturbingly alive. Then she spotted something amid the foliage. Peering at her through a clump of ferns was a grey face with moist white eyes and a slit-like mouth. Between the eyes and mouth, the face had no nose –

Something flapped above her and a shadow raced over the ground. Kayra glanced up but saw nothing. The crow – presumably it’d been a crow – had already flown past and disappeared. When she looked down again, the face had disappeared too. She ran to the ferns and saw an oily pool a few yards away on their far side. Lowering itself into the pool-water was a grey figure with a hairless head, a curved back and a knobbed ridge of a spine. A moment later this creature was immersed in and hidden by the glistening black water. Then Kayra discovered a horse’s carcass lying immediately behind the ferns. She noted a wound on it that’d obviously been inflicted days earlier, during the battle. But it bore other wounds that seemed… fresh.

She repeated her father’s words. “Guls are cowardly. Won’t go near something unless it’s dead.”

Soon afterwards Kayra found a shield. To carry it, she had to place its centre on the crown of her head, hold up her arms and grip its edges. She stumbled back, feeling she was viewing the moor from under a very low ceiling. At the cart she glimpsed another of the grey hairless creatures, slinking through the heather like a giant lizard, moving towards the circle where her father had dumped the soldiers’ bodies. The four oxen were tethered on a nearby patch of ground that had a little grass growing, but they didn’t seem troubled by the gul’s proximity. Kayra resolved to follow their example and not be frightened by the creatures either. She propped the shield against the cart and checked the sun’s position. Enough time, she decided, for one last expedition.

For this last foray she made her way up onto a hillock. Two tors rose crookedly at either end of it and gave it the look of a head that’d sprouted a pair of misshapen horns. Then, as she crossed the hillock, she heard more wings, though their flapping was slow and heavy and indicated something bigger than a crow. Again, a shadow skimmed past. She peered upwards, but continued walking.

A voice, harsh and guttural yet with a trace of femininity, spat out three words: “You! Girl! Danger!

Kayra wrenched her gaze down again. She found herself standing at the edge of a gorge that yawned unexpectedly at the hillock’s far side. A near-vertical wall of soil, scree and protruding rocks dropped away at her toes. Yards past the edge, she could see the tops of trees whose roots were in the gorge’s floor – none of the trees quite high enough to poke out of the gorge, above the level of the moor. Then she heard pebbles and earth spill down the gorge-wall and she realised the edge was crumbling beneath her.

As it collapsed she spun around and flung herself at the ground behind her. But already she was dropping. Her stomach thudded against the disintegrating gorge-edge and her legs kicked in the abyss below. She grasped forward and seized two fistfuls of heather. At the same moment she glimpsed something at the base of the nearer tor. She saw a dark, hunched figure with a face that was long and pale, framed by straggles of black hair, and in possession of piercing eyes and a grimacing mouth.

The face belonged to a woman. Kayra thought she heard her say, “Poor girl!”

Then the heather broke off in her hands and the moor, tor and figure vanished as Kayra fell into the gorge. She scudded down its side amid cascades of dirt and pebbles. Branches from the nearby-growing trees slashed and swatted at her. Finally, she landed amid a chaotic tangle of vegetation that covered and choked the gorge’s floor – bushes, briars, ferns, dunes of rotted leaves and many long, twisting tree-roots.

When the pain from her newly-acquired scrapes, bruises and cuts had eased slightly and her eyes had got accustomed to the place’s dim light, she realised a body lay sprawled and half-sunk in the undergrowth in front of her. This body differed from the ones she’d seen on the moor because it was still encased in armour. An arrow shaft protruded from the top of its chest. It’d been a lucky shot – for the archer, not the soldier – because the arrowhead had penetrated a crack of space between the upper breastplate and the metal collar that supported the helmet. The soldier must have toppled into the gorge after the arrow pierced him. Since then he’d lain here unnoticed and untouched by the scavengers, military and civilian, who’d combed the moor above.

The situation should have frightened Kayra. But before fear could take hold, she noticed something about the dead soldier that filled her with excitement instead. Gripped in one of the soldier’s gauntleted hands was a massive sword. If, she thought, I could bring that sword back to my father –

She leaned forward and placed a hand against the body’s armoured torso. Under her weight, the corpse sank a little further into the vegetation. Then she reached towards the sword and suddenly, from somewhere, she heard a long, slow, hissing noise. Kayra recoiled so that her back was against the side of the gorge. She became still and silent and for a minute everything around her was still and silent too.

Then a voice echoed down. “Girl? Girl? You hear? You live?”

Kayra looked up but couldn’t clearly see the top of the gorge because of the intervening tree-branches. Still, a figure seemed to lean over the edge and peer down at her. Then she heard, seemingly in reaction to the voice, another hissing sound. It was as long and slow as before, but this time louder.

“Girl?” echoed the voice again. “You hear? No? No.” The words sounded rough and discordant, as if the speaker was unused to human language. Nonetheless, it was possible to hear a pessimistic note in them, which suggested the speaker was on the point of giving up and turning away.

Kayra decided that if something was stirring close by, it was wiser to agitate it once by doing two things together rather than twice by doing them separately. So she shouted, “Yes, I hear you! I’m at the bottom!” At the same instant she sprang forward across the dead soldier and tried to snatch the sword-hilt from his hand. But she discovered the hand was clenched and had to stop and prise the fingers off the hilt. Then she heard another hiss… No, hisses, because they issued from different places around her, from the bushes, leaf-piles, roots and branches.

There was a commotion above as something else crashed down into the gorge, something bigger than Kayra because its descent caused more disturbance. She heard not only scrabbling against the gorge-side but also branches breaking. Leaves and twigs, as well as dirt and pebbles, began to rain on her.

She freed the sword-hilt and lifted it, using both hands because the blade attached to it was so long and heavy. The hilt consisted of an ornately-whorled cross-guard, a leather-wrapped grip and a pommel that held a disc of smooth, pure green. Kayra examined the disc and gasped when she identified it as a gemstone – a huge emerald.

Then, ahead of her, she observed something that made her wonder if she could see more emeralds. Two additional points of green rose from a mound of leaves a few yards beyond the end of the sword-blade. They weren’t emeralds, she realised, but eyes – eyes positioned on either side of a sleek, but immense, head. Covering the head were scales the texture and colour of brass. Fleshy tendrils hung under its jaw in a gross beard.

The jaw dropped open to reveal a cavernous mouth where fangs jutted up and down like stalactites and stalagmites. A yellow fluid sprayed out of it, splattered the sword-blade and landed within inches of Kayra’s hands. At the same time the head drove forward. Crying with exertion, Kayra managed to heave the sword off the ground – in time for the sharp end of it to vanish into the creature’s mouth. The blade encountered tissue, the sword shuddered and the head gave an agonised gurgle and recoiled. She managed, just, to hold onto its hilt and the blade reappeared from the mouth, now stained with red as well as yellow.

More fanged heads slid into view, down through the lowest-hanging branches, across the mush of leaves on the gorge-floor, out of the darkness between the tree-trunks. Long scaly necks wove behind them. Kayra struggled to her feet and tried raising the sword again, though she was too weak to move it far off the ground.

Meanwhile, dirt, leaves and twigs continued to fall and she heard a noise that made her think of wings – those of a bird trapped in a confined space, flailing madly. Not knowing what she was speaking to, she shouted upwards, “Hurry! I’m in trouble here!”

The head descending from the branches opened its mouth and released another jet of yellow. Kayra ducked and felt the liquid strike the back of her tunic. Something told her she didn’t want it in her eyes or on her skin. She looked up again and at the same instant the head swooped at her. But before it could reach her, a pair of claws landed on top of it and dug their tips into the green eyes on either side. It shrieked, wrenched itself free from the claws and shot back among the branches, which shook as the serpentine neck behind the head convulsed in agony.

From the ground, another of the heads lunged upwards. It went not for Kayra but for the black, bird-like creature above her, whose wings still floundered between the trees and the gorge-wall. This creature was almost the size of a human adult. Its head wasn’t beaked or feathered but was that of a woman, bearing the face Kayra had glimpsed at the tor. Then the other head fastened its fangs in one of her wings. She screamed, yanked herself free – leaving several wing-feathers snagged in her assailant’s mouth – and surged back up the gorge.

For a despairing moment Kayra thought the bird-woman had decided to flee and abandon her. But then she turned and plunged down again, tresses of black hair streaming behind her, claws wide. Those claws struck the head that’d attacked her. Scales broke off its sides with a metallic screech and red globs spurted. The long neck supporting it suddenly became flaccid and both neck and head dropped against the gorge-floor.

By now a half-dozen more heads were closing on Kayra. As their yellow venom spewed out and drenched the surrounding vegetation, she found herself cowering inside a small and shrinking patch of green –

A weight thudded down on her and two claws raked about her tunic. The claws managed to grasp the stained fabric behind her shoulders, the wings pounded yet more violently and she felt her feet leave the ground.

Kayra realised she couldn’t maintain her grip on the sword-hilt while the creature lifted her. She pressed it against her stomach and looped the cord holding up her breeches around one end of the cross-piece, so that as she ascended the blade dangled under her like a tail.

“You heavy!” spluttered the voice. “Thing heavy! Leave thing down, leave!

There was a hideous, writhing tumult as the heads rose after them. Kayra saw how their necks sprouted from the end of a single, tubular body that’d just oozed clear of the tree-roots below. Recognising the many-headed, many-necked creature from a description her father had given her, she exclaimed, “A hudra!”

Something else occurred to her and she shouted up, “And you’re a harpyia!”

The harpyia’s wings toiled as she fought her way up the gorge, encumbered by the weight beneath her. From her lips came a simple mantra: “Up, up, up…”

Then she encountered a thick leafy branch that she had trouble getting past. It resembled a giant hand, trying to hold her down. Below, meanwhile, six heads on six long necks raced up the gorge and a dozen green eyes glittered hungrily. The mouth of the nearest head yawned and suddenly its fangs were spread beneath Kayra like the spikes in one of her father’s traps.

The harpyia gave a last scream of effort. The branch bent upwards, its leaves smothering them for a moment. Then they burst past and the branch sprang downwards again and batted the nearest head back towards the gorge’s floor.

They flew out of the gorge and Kayra was released onto the hillock between the tors. No sooner was she on the ground than she started fumbling with the cord of her breeches, to unhook the sword’s cross-piece. The harpyia landed close by. Her black tresses were haphazardly adorned with pieces of leaves and twigs. Sweat dripped from their ends and an incensed face glowered out between them.

“Girl,” she raged, “evil girl! Not leave thing down, heavy thing, evil thing, killing thing!” Her feathered body hopped forward and one of her claws grasped at the sword, identifying it as the item she disapproved of. Kayra felt her hand tighten around the sword-hilt and she thought indignantly, get back, it’s mine now, it’s mine and my father’s –

Seeing Kayra’s hand move, as if she intended to use the sword, the harpyia hopped back again and shrieked, “Kill me, girl kill me?” Her voice sounded more bird-like than ever. “Evil girl! Evil humans, killing, all killing!”

Kayra let go of the sword. “No!” she cried, upset that her rescuer suddenly viewed her with such abhorrence. She tried to think of a way to show her good intentions. What did she know about harpyias? What had her father told her about them?

She remembered him saying: “They have a sort of human personality, though an emotional and paranoid one. It’s even said some of them have mastered a few scraps of human language. But the bird instincts are present too. And you know how certain birds, like the magpie, crow and hummingbird, are attracted to shiny objects and bright colours? Well, that’s true of the harpyia.”

In fact, her father had been explaining why he used shiny, coloured beads as bait for trapping harpyias. But this gave Kayra an idea. “Wait…” She took a tiny pocketknife from her tunic and dug its sliver of a blade into the pommel on the sword-hilt. The little blade soon snapped under the pressure she applied, but at the same moment the emerald popped from its socket within the pommel. It landed in the heather between them.

The harpyia immediately became interested in the green stone and the hostility melted from her expression. She hopped forward again and used a claw to fish the emerald out of the heather. It surprised Kayra to see that claw, which had recently gouged out one of the hudra’s eyes, handle something so delicately. The harpyia’s face became dreamy. She held up the emerald and murmured, “Pretty thing. Pretty, pretty thing…”

Kayra didn’t know much about commerce, but she suspected this emerald would be worth a lot to her father. Nonetheless, she said, “Take it. I’m giving it to you as a present, for saving me.”

The harpyia broke free of the emerald’s spell and glared at her again. But when she spoke, her tone was softer. “Oh. Girl give pretty thing. Thank you, girl.” Her wings unfurled themselves. “Girl not evil, girl kind. Always kind, but? Maybe.”

Then, wings pumping, emerald cradled in her claw, the bird-woman sprang into the air. She wheeled around the hillock, over the peaks of the tors, and shrank with startling speed into the sky.

Only then did Kayra realise how exhausted and sore she felt. But she was determined to bring back the sword. She gripped its hilt again and began to drag it towards where the bells were ringing.

The light was fading as she approached the cart. Her arms ached from the sword’s weight, her legs stumbled with tiredness and her skin stung where it was cut or grazed. She noticed sounds distinct from the din of bells – mewing sounds that rose and fell in pitch, suggesting animals in fear or pain. She placed the sword on the pile of scavenged things and headed for the source of the mewing.

The sounds issued from the circular ditch her father had made with the plough. At different points around the ditch, four guls writhed half-in, half-out of it. They’d become stuck while they crawled towards the corpses placed as bait inside the circle, their splayed hands or feet mired in the grey substance Kroziar had poured from the barrels.

Kayra watched the guls, repulsed by their grey bodies but feeling too a twinge of sympathy for them. Then she heard a footfall behind her and turned. A scream rose inside her – for in the twilight she was confronted by a huge, hairy creature with wolfish ears jutting from the top of its head. But a moment later she recognised the figure as her father, wrapped in his weer-wulf pelt.

“You’re late,” complained Kroziar. “You had me worried.” Then his voice mellowed. “At least you found some good things today. Better than what I found.” He looked towards the four trapped guls. “They’re not worth much but we shouldn’t waste them. Their flesh can be boiled down and turned into tar – it stinks, but it’s good for waterproofing roofs and boats. And if you grind their bones and boil them, you make an adhesive. That’s what they’re stuck in now, a glue made from the bones of their own kind. Ironic, isn’t it?”

Kroziar held a flail with a chain and spiked metal ball that he’d presumably found on the moor. He approached the nearest gul and aimed the spiked ball at its head. Before he could deliver the blow, however, he heard a thud from the spot where he’d left his daughter. He spun around and saw that Kayra had keeled over into the heather.


*****



It wasn’t until Kroziar had carried the girl to the cart and lit a lantern that he realised how cut and bruised she was. He also saw on her tunic a yellow stain that he identified as venom from the mouth, or mouths, of a hudra.

When she’d woken, and the ointments Kroziar had rubbed onto her injuries had lessened their pain, Kayra told him about falling into the gorge, finding the dead soldier, retrieving the sword and encountering the hudra. But she didn’t mention the harpyia. Her instincts warned her to leave the bird-woman out of the story. So she claimed to have scrambled up from the gorge, somehow managing to drag the sword with her, before the hudra could catch her.

Kroziar was angry that she hadn’t exercised more care at the gorge’s edge and furious that she’d endangered herself to recover the sword. Yet his fury died when he laid eyes on the sword itself. “It’s a beauty. Such a strong blade. Such craftsmanship… It had something embedded in its hilt, maybe a gemstone, but I suppose an earlier scavenger removed it. At least they didn’t take the whole sword. Yes, I could really use this. Well done, Kayra!” Then he remembered he was meant to be chastising her. “But please,” he added. “Don’t do anything like that again. Ever again.”

While Kayra rested inside the little compartment, she listened to her father load the scavenged things onto the cart. She heard him muse: “A hudra… If I’d known, I’d have brought a suitable trap with us. A suitably big trap.”

Kayra knew some of the traps they had brought with them, hanging on the cart’s sides, were big enough to catch a harpyia. She decided she’d done the right thing in not telling her father about who’d saved her from the gorge.


*****



Kroziar’s neighbours were unsure what to make of him. When they heard the noises from the old mill-house where he’d installed not only his living quarters but also a workshop and factory, they whispered that he was some manner of alchemist.

They were correct in several ways. Firstly, Kroziar was an alchemist in that he turned the things he scavenged – swords, daggers, spears, axes, shields, armour – into traps. In his workshop, he dismantled, unscrewed, sawed and broke them into pieces and reshaped those pieces by twisting, beating, filing and melting them. Then he welded, screwed, bolted and bound them together so that they assumed new, hybrid forms.

These forms were traps that seized limbs, released blades, dropped weights, threw lassoes, cast nets and slammed cage-doors. They dispensed death by stabbing, skewering, crushing and throttling. To that end, they resembled the most murderous tools found in nature – claws, jaws, fangs, pincers, stings – but cast in steel. When they were assembled, Kroziar lowered the traps into cauldrons of water and boiled them with strips of walnut bark, and then coated them with beeswax, until he was sure the tell-tale odour of humanity had been expunged from them.

For example, he’d create a trap for the weer-wulf where spiked jaws clamped onto the creature’s ankles and brought it down, before collapsing a weighted frame on top of it. The frame bristled with long silver shards, ensuring the puncturing of the weer-wulf’s body with the only substance known to kill it.

He’d make another trap for the unicorne, which was set at the edge of a deep pool where in the moonlight the creature came and drank. A wire loop would catch one of its hooves while a support was yanked from under a heavy block that was propped nearby over the water. Attached to the wire, the block dragged the unicorne into the depths and held it there until it drowned.

And he’d devise one for the minos-tauros and bait it with the scent of a female minos-bos. The man-bull stumbled on a tripwire that released a spring-pole and caused a flag to wave overhead. As the creature looked up, the wire also triggered a mechanism in a pit hidden at its feet. Out flew a spear that penetrated the dewlap hanging about its throat, one of its few weak spots.

Kroziar made these and dozens of other traps, each designed for a particular victim. Later, when he returned with his catches to the mill-house, he entered his factory. This was festooned with chains and hooks and latticed with pipes and ducts. Heat radiated from its stoves and furnaces, fumes seeped from its tanks and vats, and a great stench of blood and butchery rose from its dissection tables and the gutters beneath them. Here, he performed another type of alchemy.

He disassembled those catches into their constituent parts, into flesh, fat, fur, feathers, skin, scales, blood, bone, horns, tails, oils, venoms. And these he transformed into the goods he sold and traded, into medicines, potions, poisons, aphrodisiacs, cosmetics, amulets, trinkets, clothes, pouches, belts, boots.

Occasionally, when Kroziar reeked of some butchered creature and was slathered with its gore and blood, he’d look at Kayra sorrowfully. In a slurred voice – caused by the brandy he drank to deaden his senses against his factory-work – he’d say: “I’m sorry. This isn’t the inheritance I wanted to leave you. I thought I could have done better and got out of this cruel, filthy trade and given you an easier life. Maybe if I’d managed our money more wisely. Maybe if we’d just been allowed some good luck for once.”

And whenever he mentioned luck, Kayra thought of a huge green gemstone she’d once found and given away on a battlefield.


*****



The trap master followed a path through a dense and largely uncharted forest. It was said to contain a population of calcatrix, a creature that had a bird’s head, serpentine body and two clawed feet. After threading between countless ancient, massive trees, the path emerged into a glade. Something could be heard struggling in the glade’s centre where, hours earlier, a trap had been set.

But, having entered the glade, the trap master was puzzled to find no traces of a calcatrix. No tracks in the soil, moss or fallen leaves testified to the dragging of a long scaly body. The air was free of its odour, which was like that of a dirty chicken-house. So what had been trapped?

The trap master walked further and discovered an almost human-sized creature in its death-throes. A pair of wings would rise off the forest floor for a moment but then, pitifully, fall back again. Presumably it – she – had flapped down into the glade and set her claws on the tripwire, which’d released the blade now embedded in her side. The trap had been baited with a mirror because the calcatrix was a narcissistic creature known to be drawn by the sight of its reflection. Now the mirror glinted with sunlight, which reminded the trap master that bright shiny things were excellent bait if you wanted to ensnare a harpyia.

Not that the trap master had ever done that.

This dying harpyia had white hair and a wrinkled face. The human neck protruding from her faded plumage had a cord around it, attached to which was a big green stone. Even while she convulsed, she seemed aware of the figure looming over her, swathed in a hairy pelt and crowned with two long pointed ears.

Then the trap master pulled back the weer-wulf’s head. The harpyia saw the features underneath and suddenly the look in her dying eyes suggested something more than awareness. It suggested recognition.

Kayra drew a poniard from her belt and managed to whisper, “I’m sorry,” before thrusting it into where she judged the creature’s heart to be.

Afterwards, she eased the sword out of the body – the sword her father had so admired that, when he built it into this trap, he didn’t modify it but left it in the form it’d been when Kayra found it on the battlefield. She also removed the emerald from the cord. Then she unslung her tool-bag, took a small shovel from it and began digging.

She still stood in the glade an hour later, holding and contemplating the emerald. Beside her was a newly-formed mound of earth, the sword planted at its end so that the hilt and upper blade rose over the mound as a marker.

Finally, Kayra sighed and inserted the emerald into the pommel on the sword-hilt.

As she walked out of the glade, she looked back one last time and fancied for a moment that something, its head raised off the ground, was watching her through a pair of green eyes. Then she realised that those eyes were really the emerald gleaming from the sword, which the tears in her own eyes had blurred and divided in two.



THE END


2018 Rab Foster

Bio: Rab Foster has spent much of his life living in the Borders region of Scotland. He grew up on a hill-farm, but now works as an educational consultant. His stories have appeared in such fantasy-fiction outlets as Legend and Sorcerous Signals.

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