Double Edge

Double EdgeA quick note before the story starts, this story won 1st place last year in FenCon's short story contest.

     Jarvis Bauern walked the dirt rut from his small barn to his house, where he glimpsed his young daughter running in with a handful of flowers. His mind, though, was on the dark sky overhead, wondering if the storm clouds still gathered. If the rain would hold back one more day, he’d have the plowing done on time. If this year’s harvest was good, and he and his neighbor pooled their money, then they could buy a work ox in Talhof, the village to the west. He’d be able to plow twice as much land, hire a hand, and invest in some cows.

     The small farmhouse, built by his great-grandfather, had a low doorway. People were shorter back in those days, but it never bothered Jarvis. The frame rose high enough to let him pass without hitting his head. Banging the door closed behind him, he turned toward his family. His wife, Anna, knelt in front of their son, her plain blue skirt and white apron puffing out around her feet like flower petals. The boy with dark brown hair and dusky eyes, so much like his father, sat on a footstool near the kitchen fireplace. Little Mina, on her knees in her everyday brown dress, held her brother’s hand and stared at the bloody tear in his trousers. Anna looked up, ran her hand along a red curl at her neck, and gave Jarvis a reassuring smile. She continued crushing the stems of the flowering plants Mina brought from the garden, and pressed them into the bloody gash on their son’s leg.

     “It’s not deep,” Anna remarked. “The yarrow will stop the bleeding. Mina, fetch me some healing powder.” The little girl sprang up to obey.

     Jarvis raised his eyebrows.

     “I know it’s expensive, but I won’t use much.” His wife took the pouch from Mina when she returned and sprinkled a pinch on the laceration.

     “Why didn’t you send Mina to get me?” Jarvis knelt to examine the wound. Blood dripped onto the linen rags on the dirt floor. The cut looked clean. It’d heal up fine enough, but slow things down come seeding time. He frowned. “What happened?”

     “I missed the wood.” Alaric looked pale, but steady. 

     “Was it from the darkness, or wool gathering?”

     “A little of both, I reckon.” The boy stared at the floor. No tears fell, but his red eyes betrayed earlier sobs.

     He put his fist under the boy’s chin and lifted his head. Looking into Alaric’s eyes, he said, “Don’t wait so late to finish your chores, boy. Chopping wood seems simple, but any tool like an axe can hurt you. Do you know how you’ve put us out now?” Jarvis relented as he looked into his son’s anxious eyes. He dropped his hand and leaned back on his heels. “You should be well enough by harvest time, I suppose.”

     “I’ll be ready by then, and I can still do my chores. Don’t worry Papa!” Alaric’s eyes brightened. Jarvis knew the pain of potentially hurting his family, being a burden with his injury, hurt a great deal more than the throbbing sting in his leg. It was their life; the farm was everything. 

     Anna gave Jarvis’ arm a grateful squeeze before wrapping up the leg. He’d killed two birds with one stone, so to speak. His son would work double hard to keep up his chores, and his wife was pleased he’d dealt with the incident calmly. She hated his shouting and the children’s wailing. 

     Jarvis sat at the small round table when something crashed through the front door, sending splinters of wood flying. The dirty intruder staggered, like a drunk, but that wasn’t quite right. Jarvis rushed the tattered man. As he pushed against the filthy trespasser, the stink almost dropped him to his knees, gagging. Anna screamed behind him. He pushed the man out the door. Another disheveled man swung a muddy axe through the window. Anna grabbed the cast iron skillet from the wall where it hung and bashed the arm into the window frame. The axe dropped with a thud. 

     More stumbling men crowded at the door, strange implements raised in their hands. Another figure stepped into the broken doorframe, a woman. She swung a chunk of rock at his face. Jarvis fell backwards onto the floor. Blood spewed from his broken nose as pain exploded across his face. Others shuffled in, swinging at his family. He felt hands around his ankle, pulling him back, out of the door. While winding through the gang of intruders’ legs, Jarvis clawed at the ground, but couldn’t stop. He kicked the one dragging him in the knees. The man fell with the blow. Jarvis scooted forward, and slammed his heavy work boots into the man’s face. A chill of shock and fear raced down Jarvis’ spine. The man didn’t try to cover his torn face. He was trying to rise, flailing like a carouser! 

     “You aren’t real,” Jarvis mumbled. “You can’t be human.” He stood over the clumsy thing, grabbed the head on both sides, and twisted hard. A splintering snap of breaking bone, and the reeking man stopped his struggles. Jarvis looked up and saw the axe wielding man highlighted in the doorway. 

     More came from the barn, some shuffling like the attackers, but another set of footsteps indicated the stride of a normal person. Jarvis tasted fear in his dry throat. He ran to the rear of the house, away from the crowd, and peered into the window. A man repeatedly stabbed Mina’s chest. She crumpled onto the floor beside her dead mother and brother. In the sudden silence, Jarvis discerned that she’d been screaming. As he gasped, he realized he’d been holding his breath. Blood clung to his nose. His fingers turned white as they gripped the window frame in shock.

     The man with the normal stride walked into the wreck of the house. He had to duck to keep from hitting his head on the doorframe. The others stood back. A wave of smell hit Jarvis full in the face. He leaned down and vomited in the weeds. That smell, like rotting flesh. His head reeled with understanding of what the creatures were: zombies. Jarvis looked into the house as his heart felt like it was caught in a vise. He’d heard the legends, but never believed he’d face the vile monsters in his lifetime.

     The living man, the necromancer, wore a long black robe cinched with a red braided belt. His light brown hair tangled on his forehead in the breeze. He ran his hand through it, pushing it back, as he glanced around the room. He chanted an arcane string of words over the bodies of Jarvis’ family, and one by one, they rose to stand before him, bloody and motionless, as expressionless as muddy water. 

     What is worse than death? Jarvis knew. He started for the barn, where the tools were kept. He’d end this, one way or another; he’d free his beloved family from this evil, this vexation.

     Without light, he tripped over something in the dark barn. He cursed under his breath, then rose, hands out before him, blindly searching for the tool crate. Too late, he noticed the approaching light. Jarvis’ troubled thoughts and frantic searching shattered in the rocking pain on the back of his head. His vision doubled and blackened as he fell.

     In the darkness, a dream bloomed. He was a boy being beaten with a strap from his Pa. He’d thrown pebbles at his older sister, causing her to trip and fall, breaking all of the eggs from the chicken coop. His mother had cooked them, dirt and all, but he’d refused the punishment and wouldn’t eat them. Days went by until his father returned from the market in Talhof. After beating Jarvis, he sat him down for a lecture.

     “Son, it’s time you learned about the family sword. Your Great Grand Daddy had it, your Gramps, me, and now you. It’s a double-edged sword, see. Only not a real sword. It’s here.” Pa pointed to his head. “One edge is stubbornness, and that side’s liable to cut you good. The other edge is determination. It’ll get you through just about anything. Good or bad, it’s when you pull the sword that makes the difference. There’s always a price when you hang on ‘til you get your way.

     “You’ve pulled out the sword, I reckon, stubborn edge up. The price is, your Ma left me to deal with it, and now you’ll bring in the eggs ‘til winter.”

     “But that’s girls work,” young Jarvis protested. He stared into the weeds, not daring to let his father see the anger raging in his eyes. 

     “Always a price.”

     The dream ended. Jarvis didn’t remember standing. His family stood quietly, bloody and disheveled, in the barn. They’re dead. He longed to rush over and hold them as tears and grief poured down his face, but he couldn’t move. Terror flapped its wings about his head as panic clawed at his heart. Jarvis stood dead on his feet. He screamed, but his mouth didn’t open, and no sound passed his lips.

The necromancer shoved a torch in his hand. “Hold this.”

     Jarvis stopped his mental scream, and marveled at his grip on the torch. He hadn’t willed his body to move. It was the spell. He was only a passenger in his body, a captive soul to watch the horror he’d be ordered to commit.

     “Here, Ciglio,” one of the zombies said in a scratchy voice. He indicated a box full of farm equipment. The necromancer sorted through the pieces. 

     Jarvis stared at the flame on the torch. The bits of hay on the floor and the dry wood of the building would catch fire easily. 

     Drop it. Just let go! Open your fingers. His body didn’t respond. Fear fluttered at the edges of his mind. He pulled out the family sword and beat it back. 

     I can and… I… WILL, he thought, but still his fingers refused to obey. Their new master’s magic held fast.

     “Hand these out.” The necromancer gestured to the tools.

     His son already held the axe from the woodpile, and his daughter, a knife from the kitchen. The zombie passed a sickle, its curved blade catching the torchlight, to Anna, before handing Jarvis sheep shears. 

     “Get the light, Turen,” Ciglio commanded. “These new ones can stay in the barn.”

     The zombie who had spoken earlier, and seemed to have more free will than the others, stood in front of Jarvis and gave a wide, mocking grin before retrieving the light. He followed his master out into the night. Jarvis knew the beast meant to taunt him, moving as he chose with that smile. He wanted to torment Jarvis, helpless in his dead body, screaming without sound.

     The night slowly passed. Jarvis couldn’t move or sleep. He saw the forms of his family in the darkness. His heart broke thinking that they might be screaming, and none heard, none knew. He couldn’t calm them, or reassure them. He couldn’t help them. As frustration burned, Jarvis thought about his double bladed sword. The only price now was to lose, to remain a zombie, a dead killer. He was determined to end this evil entrapment for his family. Nothing else mattered.

     At noon, they began the slow and shuffling march though a drizzle to the western village. Jarvis had grown used to the smell of rotting flesh and the metallic tinge of exposed blood. The rain sharpened the edge of the retched smell, like overripe fruit. As the drizzle relented, flies buzzed around the marching bodies and feasted on the ripped and torn skin. 

     By twilight, Jarvis saw the outline of buildings among the trees, with the manor house on a hill in the center of Tolhof. Ciglio rode on horseback behind his undead army, sending out the order to kill the villagers on sight, but they must keep the head and limbs intact and connected to the trunk of the bodies they killed.

     Zombies spread out as they hit the town. Jarvis and his family, near the rear of the group, made their way to the manor house before coming into contact with any living being. Turen broke through the front door, taking an axe in the chest from someone inside. Jarvis stumbled in after Anna and Alaric. His wife and son chopped and sliced at the men in the entry hall. Turen headed for the kitchen. 

     Jarvis found his feet tromping uneasily up the stairs. From the corner of his eye, he saw Mina stabbing into a man’s back. A woman tried to run, but tripped and fell, breaking a vessel in the commotion. Liquid from the container mixed with tendrils of blood on the floor. 

     Jarvis reached the landing above the staircase and shuffled down the narrow hall. He banged open a door and found three children huddled inside the bedroom. The oldest grabbed the youngest and dashed around Jarvis. He heard their footsteps down the stairs. It wouldn’t make a difference. The middle child, a blond girl near the age of eight, sat sobbing in the corner.

     Stop! Jarvis yelled at himself without sound. 

     His body moved forward, his hands pulling open the shears. He cut at the girl’s stomach. She screamed and held the red blood that soaked through her white cotton nightgown. Her shrieks turned to moans of pain. Tears screamed down her pale face. 

     Horrified at what he’d done, at the butchering, Jarvis felt hatred for his own body. The sorrow he felt for the girl mixed with disgust at his part in it. Good God! At least finish her. Jab the blade of the shears into her skull! 

     This time, the body did as he commanded. He felt his arms move. He felt the fall and the thud and the spill of blood and brain over his hand. The screams and moans continued from below, but up here, the only sound was the wood creaking. Blood pooled beneath the young girl. 

     Jarvis’ body reached down and grabbed a leg. He dragged her out of the room and down the short hallway, her hair and arms flowing out behind her, a trail of blood staining the floor planks. Jarvis found her empty staring eyes, unnerving. He cringed inside as they started down the stairs. With every downward step, the girl’s head thumped on the hard wood of the stairs, jerking her neck as though she was nothing more than a rag doll.

     Pick her up! The next step, another thump. He willed his body to pick her up, to no end. You’re liable to snap off her poor head, you idiot! Ciglio won’t like that! He willed action again, and this time the girl ended up in his zombie arms. 

     She’d have looked as though she slept, were it not for the dark blood matting her hair and clothing. Jarvis’ throat ached and his eyes burned, yet no tears came.

     As he approached the other dead bodies of the household, he thought, put her down gently. He willed his knees to bend and his arms to lower, but instead, the arms dropped and the girl’s small frame smacked down hard next to a woman’s body, perhaps the girl’s mother. Her little hand sent up a splash, releasing the fragrance of brandy that pooled on the wooden floor beneath them.

     The necromancer stomped through the door, a smug look on his face. Turen was no where in sight. Ciglio thrust the torch he carried into Jarvis’ hands. He inspected the bodies and nodded. Jarvis watched helplessly as the necromancer began his evil magic. He stood by the window, and the curtains fluttered in the light breeze. He gave up willing his uncooperative body, and began willing the curtains to rise a little higher, just enough to reach the flame in his hands. The breeze fluttered in, the curtains rose, but not enough. Jarvis shook in frustration. 

     Shouts and clanging down the street caught Ciglio’s attention. He frowned toward the open door. “Trouble,” he muttered. Leaving the bodies crumpled on the floor, he started for the door. “You,” he said looking at Jarvis, “this way.” Ciglio exited into the dark night. 

     Jarvis began to follow leaving his family behind to stand over the dead, when he slipped on the spilt brandy. His body lost its balance and fell forward, holding the torch lifted up enough from the wet floor to keep it from catching fire. 

     Drop it! Jarvis willed. Nothing happened. Jarvis had no control. But then, he did finish off the dying girl. He did pick her up when descending the stairs. Maybe there was hope. Drop it! Nothing. His body leaned to the side, as though confused, and in that moment, it snapped into place. Jarvis had an idea.

     Get up! Hurry! The master is waiting. This time his body rose as his mind willed, up on his hands and knees. In the process, it flattened his hands on the wet wood, pressing the torch down into the brandy. Fire flared to life and spread over the wooden floor. It raced along the bodies, the new unmoving ones and zombies alike.

     Jarvis lifted his head and found Anna looking at him. Though her face remained emotionless, he saw a glimmer of happy approval in her eyes.

     Ciglio popped his head back into the door and stared at the hissing flames.

     “Get out! Now!” he yelled at his zombies. 

     Jarvis watched as Anna tripped on the bodies between her and the door. Alaric was directly behind, and fell over his mother into the pile of newly dead. Mina tilted her head, but didn’t move as the flame twisted through her hair. Jarvis lost sight of them in the smoke. He looked at his own hands, covered in the roaring blaze. They charred with black and white ash. 

     Somewhere in the distance, Ciglio screamed and yelled, but it didn’t matter anymore. The master had lost his puppets.

     He felt a sense of peace as the tension released. Jarvis dropped the mental sword, victory won, and waited for death’s claim. He heard the echo of his children’s laughter, like a dream, happy and free.

 References: Ciglio, Zombie

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