The Bats of Elvidner
by Danielle L. Parker
Outside was deep silence, and a smell like butchering on a hot day, and darkness, thick enough to chew.
“She’s still feeding the clave,” the farmer whispered. “Aye, smell that blood! What now, old man?”
Loeske shuddered as his busy fingers threaded the farmer’s long belt. “Hang on to the belt. Don’t lose touch! Markin, can you guide us?”
“What about the dog? The wolf, ye said?”
“It may not be here entirely to rescue us, Hagar.” Loeske felt the wall with the hand that was not anchored to their shared length of leather. “Though I think we can expect to be fully avenged, should we die. But we can’t look for help from anyone but ourselves. Markin? Did you hear me? Is there any way out of here? Any way, at all, to avoid bats?”
The woodcutter’s hoarse, slow voice rumbled in the darkness behind him. “They ‘uns led me out with a rope ‘round me neck and put me in the cart. I don’ know. The diggin’s... that’s all I know.”
“Are the diggings hotter than here, Markin? Cooler?”
There was another agonizing pause as rusty cognitive wheels ground. Then, “Hot, aye, ver’ hot,” came the rasping reply.
“Pity. The diggings are going deeper, then, not toward the surface.” The old man crept forward, tugging his little train. “But you’ve given me an idea. We need a cart, boys, and a couple dray bats. They’re used to humans moving about as prisoners, in those carts. And dray bats can see down here. We can’t.”
“Ye’re crazed, old man!” The farmer gave a honking snort. “And mayhap dray bats can whistle up a couple warriors, and we’ll all be bleeding to death out our ears!”
“Drays are no more than dumb animals, Hagar. I never saw them treated as anything else, the whole three days. Warriors are intelligent. Fliers, obviously so. The mother... I’d guess so. Don’t know about the drones.” Loeske stopped. “What is it, Bram?”
“Bats!” It was a malignant hiss.
“I don’t think so, Hagar.” The child tugged eagerly. “The boy’s trying to lead us. Wherever it is, it’s away from the wall... get down. We’ll have to crawl.”
Loeske lowered himself to his knees. His joints hurt; his whole body ached, especially his damaged ears. They were all lucky they could still hear. It was definitely time to make his final journey to Kolonie, if he escaped this subterranean hell with body and soul still joined together...
Crawling one-armed was painful, what with the grip he dared not lose on their sole leathery connection. Behind him, he heard the harsh gasps of his two companions. He could smell the unwashed reek of all of them, especially Markin.
The old man paused to scratch something already biting vigorously among the wiry hairs of his crotch. Six years of darkness, devoured every minute by a ravenous host of human lice... how could the poor woodcutter still be sane?
The cavern was obviously larger than he had guessed. They crawled on and on. The boy, though, seemed confident enough of their direction. Then suddenly, Loeske’s head met something with a jolt that numbed his cranium. He felt the shape of the obstacle. It was a large unevenly spoked wheel.
“It’s one of the carts! Not ours. The mother’s, I think. It’s bigger.”
“Yes. Let me think.” Loeske sat back on his heels, rubbing his head. “And it must still have the yoked drays in front. That’s how the boy found it.”
The old man clambered to his feet, clinging to the top of the big leather-wrapped wheel. Out of the darkness, the farmer’s big hand came to assist him, and the child’s spindly arm wrapped his waist.
“They haven’t been unhitched. She must have been in a real hurry to feed those warriors... but they’ll be coming after the drays too, any moment. We need to get to their heads, Hagar. There’s no telling how they’ll react to a human handler.”
“Aye, I’ll go round and get the off-side. Markin, ye help me. Get t’other side.”
The old man felt moving disturbances in air. The tail of belt went slack in his grip. He patted the boy’s head with his free hand. “Done good, boy,” he whispered.
The cart rocked, lurched, jolted a further step forward; stopped as suddenly. The pig farmer swore luridly under his breath. “Here, ye stinking beasties!” Then he began to croon incongruous softness. “Aye, I have ye now. Ye be as good’s me old sow Bessie, and I’ll not pinch yer noses again. Stay, down now, stay, ye wicked blood-sucklin’ beastie...”
The boy began to pat Loeske’s arm in soft quick beats. The old man felt forward, drew himself laboriously alongside the cart, the boy pawing his arm more frantically the while.
“Hagar,” he gasped. “I think they’re making a racket. Like horses, neighing...”
“Aye,” came the flat reply. “I guessed so. Get in the cart. I’ll hold the heads.”
“Wait.” The old man groped. “Torches. They burned pitch torches all during the nights. Maybe there’s one or two left... get up, boy! Feel around for torch and flint! Quick!”
The child mewled. But the clammy fingers tore free. The cart rocked as the youngster climbed; Loeske heard fingernails scrabble and panic-stuttering breath. The wooden boards creaked as the boy searched hastily about.
The cart reeked of something more terrible than the acrid urine and feces that had tainted their own conveyance; there was an iron-tinged, bitter tang of stale blood, and something strong and sickeningly musky beneath, the smell of the mother herself.
A low snarl erupted somewhere close in the darkness. The animal growling went on and on without stopping. The old man trembled.
“It’s the wolf. The wolf! It hears them! There’s a warrior coming. Boy! Boy! Give me a torch!”
There was a muffled sob in answer. The cart shook from side to side. Loeske, sweeping his hands outwards futilely, encountered solidity at last. The boy, sobbing and hiccupping, thrust resin-aromatic stick and rough flint into his grasp. With shaking hands, the old man fumbled with the striker. At the head of the cart, he heard Hagar struggling with the pitching drays.
“Plug your ears with your fingers, lads. It might be some help...” He struck the flint futilely. Again. “This damnable striker! There it is. Light!”
The pitch ignited like a bomb, barely missing his beard. Fire flared, blinding. The woodcutter groaned in inarticulate agony at the birth of light.
And other sound came then — a killing shrilling. The old man screamed, and lifted the flaming torch high.
A figure filled the entrance of the cavern. It was taller than a man. Its skin was oil-black and soft-looking as sueded velvet. It stood pitched forward upon the chitinous elbows of its scissored wings like a man leaning upon a stick.
It hopped forward, then, with terrorizing speed. In the midst of its convoluted, many-folded, baroquely ornamented nose, there quivered a stiffly extended tube, like a truncated elephant’s trunk, that poured unseen punishment.
Something white and huge flashed past. The beast leapt. Loeske dropped the torch and put his hands up to his bursting ears. The light guttered. In the return of total night, there were new sounds: inhuman snarls and snapping and cracking and crunching; short shrill bursts, sharp now as slashes of knives, that threatened dissolution to ear and eye and inner parts; unseen bodies tumbling and colliding and contesting with titanic, inhuman force.
Then slowly, quiet, except for that continuing low, animal snarl, and the sudden sickly reek, strong and almost sweetish, of violent death.
The snarl sank into a vibrating silence.
The old man put his hand to his frantically thrashing heart. There was an iron pain in his chest and tingling down his arm. Liquid, hot and wet, ran out his throbbing ears down his neck. His eyes wept blood. “Hurts,” he gasped. “My old ticker’s about had it. Hagar! Markin! Are you all right?”
“Aye,” he heard through the buzz in his ears. “I’ll hold their heads. Help him, Markin. Get the old man and the boy into the cart.”
The boy still hiccupped speechless distress. Loeske put his arm around his shaking shoulders. “We’re alive, boy.” He was dimly amazed at the strength of his own voice. “We’re alive.”
The woodcutter’s huge, rock-hard arms surrounded him; the old man, pressed against that unclean, muscular chest, felt himself lifted with the ease of a babe. The boy settled beside him a moment later. “The torch,” Loeske choked. “Give me the torch and flint, Markin!”
He fumbled with the flint once more, ignoring the continuing pain in his breast. “Dark won’t help us now. Let’s live and die in the light, lads!” The flint struck. Loeske squinted in the sudden dazzle.
The gaunt figure of the woodcutter turned away from him, fingers with eagle-like claws protecting eyes no longer comfortable with light. A long, matted tail of gray hair hung down his bared back; rags of trousers, no more than tissue-thin, ripped threads, hung about his hips. Loeske blinked past. The farmer, doughy face surprisingly composed, held the heads of two bridling drays tightly with both meaty fists.
Beyond lay the corpse of the warrior bat. The peak-eared head, half-rolled on its side to face him, had been crushed nearly in half in giant jaws. The sonic-generating snout, sheared from its root, lay flaccid as an eunuch’s phallus. Little else was recognizable — torn scraps of wing, skin ripped into handkerchief-sized patches, splintered and snapped bones (surprisingly delicate and bird-like) and glistening organs in a lake of black ichors. There was no sign of the wolf.
Loeske lifted the torch. He refused to acknowledge the hot squeeze of his spasming heart. His personal crisis could wait its turn, damn it.
“Get these drays moving, lads,” he croaked, breathing in stentorian, labored snorts. “It’s a long ways to home.”
Copyright © 2008 by Danielle L. Parker