Another installment in this delectable serialised fiction, my dear imaginary readers, after three weeks of fluff- I mean quality articles. A familiar narrator again, if you haven’t heard from the Scavenger yet his previous outing was in Part 2. For those of you who have just arrived, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.
“Vulture,” Twin muttered in my ear as we trod down the newly crawling undergrowth.
Twin doesn’t speak often, and I often think that is for the best.
I can’t forget the first time he told me about his brother.
“Vulture,” the witch boy whispered again.
That story had sunk in like a rock in the pit of my gut.That was when I came to understand what it was the boy had missing, something broken inside him. Like we all did.
I hammered a ragged, low hanging branch into the earth with my boot, tearing it loose from its trunk like a shirt torn in half.
He’d come in a package, you see. He and a brother, just like him, born together, and I guess that’s why he’s called Twin. The two boys, as he tells it, are happy enough. Always closer to each other than the other street rats, naturally, just like my sister and I were, as long as you forget that she was the only one with enough iron in her gut to look me in the eye.
So the boys are just that, just a pair of whippets kicking about in the streets in the times between when their aunt can sober up enough to try again at teaching them their letters. They have great fun being able to convince people they’re in two places at once.
Then it goes bad, as these stories always seem to. For most little ones, you grow up the day your dog dies, or when your sweetheart leaves off, or you find out your sweet mother lied to you.
It hit Twin when a cart, rattling along like lightning on lake water, thrashed his brother to the ground and broke his neck.
That would be enough for decent folk to fall apart. But when its your brother, a life you shared, the very mirror of your face, that’s got to be something else.
Give it that.
Now remember that it takes at least a quarter hour for the boy to die. The bells ring as the brother screams for a doctor.
There’s a saying in the City, that when its your time to go it’ll surprise you, an you won’t feel it. I’ve seen that untruth with my good eye, seen that the whole of the City is built on the lies they tell each other.
I’ll know an angel has kissed me if I have the luxury of dying fast.
So Twin has the chance to see the lights go out in his brother’s eyes, and he thinks his life is over at that moment.
But what twists the knife is that, after all this happens, nobody talks about his brother anymore. Not his ma, not his aunt, and folks start tearing up or spitting madness when Twin talks of him, so he stops. he starts to lose his memories, like little ones do, and he comes to a point where he struggles to remember his brother’s name.
“Vulture!” Twin screeches out, and hurls himself at me, taking the both of us down into the mud.
And letting the gunshot echo around us, the bullet ripping open a tree instead of my stomach.
“Stay back, you gutterfilth goat fuckers!”
That voice was familiar.
And I guess that’s what hurt the most.
His brother might have been forgotten. It might only have been Twin that remembered him at all.
“It’s Vulture.” he rasped into my ear as we took cover behind a ridge of earth.
“Vulture… is dead.” I muttered back, “You told me!”
“Plenty of bullets for all of you, come and get ’em!” the voice rang out again.
“Alright,” I nodded, “Definitely Vulture. Why did you say she was dead?
Twin closed his eyes, squeezing them shut and gripping his head.
His brother’s voice had found him, while he was trying to sleep. It had told him what would happen, about what might happen, about the terrible things he might do now that he could choose them for himself.
“Why didn’t you know?” I shouted as another shot rang out. I could see it when I glanced out of our hiding place; the Temple was ahead, and it seemed that Vulture had dug in between the pillars. The sun was beginning to set.
Maybe it was the loss of his brother that made Twin into a witch. Or maybe he was born that way, and his witch blood had made him a brother. I won’t pretend to know.
There’s a saying in the City, that a witch among you is worth a legion at the gate.
In the Woods, one can save your life.
“Damn it all Vulture, its us!”
“Great! Get the hell away!”
“I can hear you just fine! It ain’t that I’ve not been listening, darlings, its that you won’t let me sleep!”
“We need to come in! Now!”
“You can come in after a course of lead, you lying pigs!”
Twin wasn’t just a witch, and City folk are fools to have only one word.
Twin, best as I’ve managed to guess, is living the gambler’s dream. His brother tells him what was, what will be, what he could bring to pass.
His brother gets quieter in the Woods, like something is trying to smother him.
There is more than one kind of witch.
Another shot rang out. I signaled for Twin and Dram to make their move around to the right, and the two lads nodded. They broke off, an I steppe out from behind the overhang, pistol in hand, flint under thumb.
I saw Vulture step out from behind one of the obscene stone pillars, the sun crawling into dusk at her back. One rifle in hand, another six at her feet, with the barrel aimed squarely at me.
“One more step and your dead, trickster!”
“Brilliant!” I shrugged, raising my own weapon, “You’re not looking to join me, are you maman?”
She locked her flint, and squared her shoulders. I took a few steps forward, then dropped my pistol where she could see it.
“Its me, Vulture! We’re pals, aren’t we? I still owe you a drink, you’ll throw that away if you put a slug in me…”
Her shoulders were shuddering with her breath, eyes ringed with grey and filled with terrified fire. “No closer, imposter!”
“What’s the imposter lark, Vee?” I steppe slowly closer, hands open, mere paces away now, “You don’t have to shoot me. Hell, its bad luck to kill somebody who’s already cursed.” I tapped a finger under my milk eye. “We’re friends aren’t we Vee?”
She gritted her teeth, stifling I don’t know what.
Her finger twitched, and the hammer fell.
The empty click resounded between the ancient pillars.
I took my last three steps, and took the gun from Vulture’s shaking, unresisting hands. She slumped against the pillar, face pressed into her palms, a low scream scrabbling out between them.
Over her shoulder, I saw Twin slumped against another pillar, and he threw a mock salute as blood sloughed from his mouth and nose. Playing the odds for me.
There’s more than one kind of witch.
Vulture fell to the floor, her cache of rifles clattering around her. I wrenched my blanket from my pack, put it around the shoulders of a woman I knew to be one of the toughest creatures in existence. The story ran that as her son was being born, she laughed and told the midwife to quit making faces.
There’s more than one kind of witch. Twin’s kind play the odds better than any gambler, but the ones in the Woods are different. They force their music along bonds of blood, closing off doors, forcing things to their natural conclusion. I’d heard whispers that the Charnel Sisterhood and the Boat Tribe who live beneath the City worked dark witchery in the same way. Sickening flesh, breaking minds. Natural ends. Death. Despair.
There’s more than one kind of witchcraft, but they all drive you mad, one way or another.
The lads skulked from the Woods and into the Maze of ancient pillars, making camp and getting a fire going. I kept my good eye on Vulture as the sky went dark.
If the Aldermen knew Twin was a witch they’d string him up like a squab for sale. But there’s not a guard alive who’d go down the tunnels to fetch a Charnel Sister. Funny how the law works, especially when lawsmiths know they’d rather die in bed.
Better in bed than on a cold stone slab in the depths of a midnight dark pit.
Vulture’s twitching quietened, and eventually she seemed to dose off. From what we’d seen, she’d earned it.
Twin wandered over to me, firewater flask in hand, a darkening rag in the other, held over his mouth and nose.
“Why is she here?” I whispered as he slouched down beside me, “You said you’d found her corpse.”
Twin shrugged, and passed me the flask.
“Might have been. Could have been. Maybe.”
“That’s not all that helpful, if we’re being honest, Twin.”
“It… should. Should have been. But, she’s here, so… a change. Feathers and blood. New Vulture. Sacrifice.”
Twin laughed, before hurriedly pressing the rag back in place as the blood leaped forth again.
He did his best to talk around it.
“All cursed, here,” he whispered, “You and me both, Sarge.”