The Bats of Elvidner
by Danielle L. Parker
“Which way, old man?”
The old man bit his dirtied nails in indecision. The light of their second torch, and the next-to-last they had, was now guttering low. The listless drays, constantly prodded and pinched into reluctant motion by Hagar, hung their heads low. But their (he guessed) hour-long journey had been surprisingly easy since leaving their original chamber.
Beyond, their chamber had yielded to a long, smoothly floored tunnel; there had so far been sign of neither bat nor wolf. Loeske’s mistreated heart had even (slowly, oh so slowly) eased its painful pinching.
But now the tunnel forked. He had not the least idea which branch they should take. He shrugged. The center fork looked the most used; the left fork showed the ruts of many cart trips in a softer soil; the right was the smallest of the three. Hagar, at the head of the drays on the left, scratched his chin in evident perplexity as he stared into the nearly identical black maws.
The old man sighed. “Markin? Which way to the diggings?”
The woodcutter, face averted from the still-painful light, hunched his great shoulders. “Left,” he muttered. “Think they ‘uns took me left.”
“Not there, then. That’ll only take us down.” Loeske lowered himself from the cart, wincing and almost stiff as a corpse. The boy offered anxious assistance, patting his arm with every shaky step he took.
The old man approached the center tunnel and squatted on his haunches, sniffing. “The air’s clearest straight ahead. Bram? Bats ahead?”
The boy nodded vigorously. A hank of his black hair fell over his hollowed, sunken eyes; he swatted it aside impatiently. There was sharpness in his features that had not been there before, a hint of the emerging adult.
“Guess we’ll be meeting them sooner or later. We got no choice.” The old man stood up, holding their precious torch above their heads. “We’ll go straight on. But we all get in the cart now, and douse the light, and hide as best as we can. We’ll have to let the drays pick their own way. Maybe no one will notice there’s no warrior with us. We can only hope.”
“These beasties won’t move without prodding. They’s done for, almost.”
“Then pick a stick out from the latticework, and poke them in the rear as discreetly as you can, whenever you have to.” Loeske hobbled back to the cart. The drays, as he passed them, did indeed look done for; the eye of the rightmost was dull and filmed, and its wrinkled feeding tube hung limply out of its mouth like a dried-out sausage. “Take this torch, boy. You’ll have to help me up, lads. My old ticker’s not what it used to be.”
He rested on the edge, limp as an overcooked noodle, before he had the strength to crawl deeper inside. Outside, Hagar could be heard yet crooning threats and exhortations to the exhausted drays.
Loeske crawled to the back of the cart. The boy pressed tremblingly close. There was, as the torch was blown out, then thrust inside, and his remaining companions joined him in the close confines of the small conveyance, a hideous sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t they all lived this horror before?
A stick cracked sharply. At the front of the cart, there was a rustle as Hagar worked the latticework barrier into position. “Now ye blood-sucklin’ beasties, here’s one right up yer asses,” the farmer muttered. “Move, ye drags!”
The cart rolled ploddingly forward. Inside their new close confines, Loeske could hear their mutual heavy breathing and thudding heartbeats with startling clarity. At the front, Hagar muttered as now and then he applied judicious encouragement to the drays.
Time seemed to stretch. The cart rolled on, and on. Loeske no longer had the least sense of their direction. Had they indeed gone straight ahead? Had they turned? Where were the drays taking them? How long had they rolled on in this thick blanket of darkness? Miles, or mere yards?
The boy started suddenly. Squeeze, pause; squeeze, pause. The old man swallowed in a dry throat.
“Bats,” he whispered. “Close by, now. Careful, Hagar. No more noise.”
The farmer hitched back. “They’re moving on their own, anyway,” he whispered back. “Don’t know why. Haven’t had to prod them for a while, now.”
Haven’t had to prod them. The old man licked his suddenly stiff lips. I’ve been a fool. “Hagar,” he breathed. “What happens when a tired and hungry horse senses its stall and oats are near?”
“A horse? I ain’t never seen one. Never seen oats, neither.” There was a long, somehow terrible pause. “I guess it starts to trot. Like me pigs, when I sookie-sookie ‘em to their dinners.”
“Exactly.” The old man stared into the darkness with wide-open eyes. “Dinner. We’re in trouble, now. Do you smell it? That musky, bloody odor? It’s getting stronger. Isn’t it?”
There was a tenser pause. Then, “The mother,” the farmer whispered. “I smell the mother. Maura help us! We’ve ridden right to her.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2008 by Danielle L. Parker