[I don’t write fantasy, -my manuscript is set in modern day Melbourne,- but this scene was brewing in my head the last few weeks and I had to write it down. Something about germanic names, or village life or… 16th century peasantry? Vampires maybe? Either way, it’s about thick, inescapable dark. I don’t know.]
She couldn’t stop staring at the corpse.
It hadn’t moved. It wasn’t going to move. Fiana wasn’t sure why she couldn’t look away from it. She sat with her back against cedar wall, her knees drawn up to her chin, her arms wrapped about her bare legs. And she couldn’t stop staring.
The body was sprawled across the floorboards of the kitchen, it’s legs and arms twisted about, it’s head turned to face her with its tongue hanging lazily from its mouth. It’s eyelids were closed, but Fiana could feel it’s cool stare even still.
The candles on the wooden table in the centre of the kitchen were flickering with the breeze that drifted in from the cracked window above the wash basin. They’d never bought a candelabra. The five, thick, fat, wax sticks stood at varying heights, moulded together at the base, and stuck with melted and dried wax at the bottom.
The five flames stood vigil for the darkness, while Fiana stood vigil for the body.
She couldn’t leave the room. She knew that. She had to stay by the body. In Rahvenfell, it was against the laws and customs to leave a fresh corpse unattended until the Collector came. Her older brother had left to call for the Collector nearly an hour previous.
She didn’t want to have to worry about his whereabouts, but she was beginning to.
The darkness was thick in the house just as it was thicker without. The flames that danced on the tips of the five candles shifted the shadows like static, flashing, rippling water: The broomstick in the corner; the three stools about the table; the contours in the face of the dead man on the floor. They all shifted, and gave the darkness a horrid, mocking movement.
Fiana tore her dark eyes away from the body when she heard the hoof falls on the road outside. A horse whinnied in the distance, and she heard the cooing whispers of its rider as they approached.
Sharply, Fiana rose to her feet and stepped over to peer through the rippled glass of the cracked window above the wash basin. The glimmering lamps that jutted from the slick soil along the road gave off very little light, but in the bathing darkness she could see the horse and the open-topped cart.
Her brother sat next to the rider; a man dressed in loose black robes with a deep, tattered hood.
‘Here,’ she heard her brother say, pointing to the house. ‘Just here.’
He jumped from the cart and into the thick mud of the road before the Collector had even pulled the mare to a halt. Her brother nearly slipped in the slick as he made his rush for the door, flinging it open at appearing in the kitchen just across from her.
The open door exposed the house to a great flow of cold air. Fiana felt goosebumps prickle away at her arms, and she folded them across her chest.
Despite the cold, her brother’s face was marred with sweat. His dark hair was a greasy mop. His grey linens were wet under his arms and speckled with flecks of mud and grim, most likely thrown up by the horse on his ride back. Heavy black boots were caked with fresh mud that Fiana watch him trek through the kitchen as he walked to the body.
‘He’s here,’ her brother muttered again as he approached the corpse, slowly falling to his knees, and contorting his mouth as his tears grew anew. It was the second time that night Fiana had to watch him do this.
‘Alir…’ she said, softly, but her brother didn’t hear her. ‘Alir!’
He looked up at her then. His tears were mixing with the droplets of sweat on his round, prickly face. ‘What?’
‘He has to be buried.’ She said. A man born in the Light of Yord must be buried. She remembered that much.
‘He won’t be.’ Was the craggy answer that came not from her Brother, but from the Collector at the door. His robes blew in the breeze, the hems tattered and stained with mud. His hands were thin and wrinkled with short, stumpy nails. He drew them up and flung back his hood. Beneath, his head looked shrunken and withered.
In truth, Fiana could see he was just an elderly man. Weather-beaten and tried. His crown was bald and spotted with brown marks. His wispy, long grey hair grew in a horseshoe about his bald patch. His lips were thin, and his sad eyelids clung to gelatinous eyes too pale to be real.
‘A man born in the Light of Yord must be-’ Fiana began.
‘He will be burned.’ The Collector said, staring hard at her. ‘Oaths and Religion be damned. He’ll burn with the rest of them.’ He licked his chapped lips and stepped into the house.
He wore no boots, but his feet were wrapped in thick, black linens and caked with dried earth. Fiana had heard tales of The Pits where the Collectors burned the dead. It was said they couldn’t wear shoes because the leather would go rotten with plague. Instead they bound their feet, and burned the rags at the end of each day.
Her brother stood and wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and the Collector gestured to the top half of the corpse. ‘Get his arms, boy.’ The old man said, before squatting between the corpse’s legs and snatching an ankle in each hand.
Alir planted his hands in the armpits of the body, and together they hoisted the corpse off the floor and began to walk it to the door and onto the road outside.
Fiana watched them go. She watched their shuffling, awkward steps. She watched her brother turn his head away and close his eyes as they walked. She watched the corpse’s head loll about loosely on its neck.
The Collector and her brother stepped into the mud outside. With a grunt, the Collector turned with the body and walked toward the cart.
The rain was falling lightly again, spattering down onto the muddy streets of Rahvenfell. Fiana saw the children in the wooden lodge across the road staring out their window. The old woman who lived next door was praying at her doorstep, knees in the mud; forehead against the door. The elderly seemed to think they could ward with Gods. The young knew better.
The street lamps had been lit hours before, and already they were straining against the dark. They were candles protected by four misty walls of glass, sitting atop iron bars, planted beside the road once every twenty yards.
Dark soldier pines sprouted up from the moist earth in almost every space that wasn’t taken up by the road, or a wooden lodge. The leaves shifted and caressed one another in the air, and filled the night with the dreadful mourning sounds of pitch dark. The sounds Fiana knew; the life the citizens of Rahvenfell village lived.
Lars, the boy across the street who was almost of an age with her stepped out of his house. The frightened faces in the window were those of his much younger siblings, Fiana knew.
She wasn’t sure why Lars stepped out of the house, and pointedly shut the door behind him. She thought for a moment that maybe he was trying to impress her, the way he stood there in the waning light of the street lamp with his arms crossed over his chest, and watched as her brother and The Collector threw the corpse onto the back of the cart. The body landed with a fleshy thud, atop a dozen other dead bodies that laid in varying degrees of nakedness.
They were all sprawled and thrown in as haphazardly as the last. Twisted arms and broken legs hung over and between the foot-high railings. Heads flopped on broken necks, mouths agape, eyes open and staring lifeless at the black, cloud-filled sky.
Fiana felt that chill again, and she watched her brother step away from the cart as quickly as he could. He knew, just as Fiana did, just as Lars did; that while there were many things to fear in the darkness of Rahvenfell’s nights, the Corpse Carts were no exception.
Some say you could catch plague just by breathing to close to a dead body. Fiana wasn’t sure she believed that. The Collectors hauled and handled and burned them every day. Most of them were old men. None of them had died from plague.
The Collector wiped his hands on the hanging sleeves of his black robes and stepped around the Corpse Cart to check on the reigns of his horse. Alir stepped close to her. ‘We have to pay him.’ He whispered.
Why he felt the need to tell her, she didn’t know. Everyone knew you had to pay the Collectors. If you didn’t pay them, it was said they’d make a corpse of you, too.
‘We haven’t any money, Alir.’ She whispered back.
‘Ssh!’ He hushed her. ‘I told him we did.’
Fiana watched the Collector check the wheels of his cart, before idly making his way back toward she and her brother. ‘We should have buried him.’ She mused to herself. A man born in the Light of Yord must be buried. Everyone knew that.
The Collector extended his withered hand to Alir. ‘Twelve coppers now, boy. As promised.’
Her brother looked as though he might die as well, from fright or perhaps panic.
‘Can you debit it?’ Fiana asked, ‘against the mill?’
The old man scoffed at being addressed so by a woman. A girl, really. ‘What Mill?’
‘The… The Rahvenfell Mill, sir.’ Her brother picked up. ‘I’m employed there, see.’
‘Employed, are you?’ The Collector asked. ‘Good for you boy. Do they pay you?’
‘Pardon, sir?’ Alir’s voice shook with grief and fear.
‘For work, boy!’ The Collector spouted. ‘Do they pay you for you work?’
‘Ah, yes, sir!’ He stammered. ‘But, by that, I mean no, sir they do not. Not in monetary means. By monetary means, sir. They provide my sister and I with food enough for us both.’
The Collectors pale eyes fluttered to Fiana for a moment. His look made her feel slimy and dead. ‘So you ain’t no foreman, boy?’ The Collector asked. ‘You don’t own the mill, pray?’
‘No…’ Alir paused. ‘No sir. I do not.’
‘So, you can’t by any legal means approve a debit, can you?’ The Collector spat on the mud at Alir’s feet and growled, slathering his yellowed teeth. ‘I don’t appreciate being tossed around, boy.’
‘I didn’t! I mean… I wasn’t trying to… He… He just died. He died and law and custom require a Collector to dispose with the corpse. Of, dispose of the corpse, sir.’ Alir was sweating again.
Across the road, Lars still stood, waiting and listening. His presence was beginning to annoy her. It seemed arrogant, standing in the dark, so near a Corpse Cart, staring at her.
‘Aye,’ The Collector told her brother. ‘But there are fees, boy. And the fees have got to be paid.’
‘How much, sir?’ Alir ventured.
‘Twelve coppers.’ The Collector said, pursing his thin lips.
‘Tw… Twelve?’ Alir muttered in reply.
‘Aye,’ The Collector confirmed. ‘Twelve. Unless you fancy coming with me to Dahrgenhal to pay off the debt with your sweat.’
Alir shivered at the name of the capital. Rahvenfell was hard living, but a mortal human in Dahrgenhal was as loved as a plague-ridden mutt, and was about as likely to die as one, too.
‘No, sir. I pray-’ Alir began.
‘Twleve coppers, you say?’ Lars had an accent that Fiana had never be able to place, but his voice was deep enough to give it some authority edge.
The Collector turned about to spy the tall boy in the darkness. ‘Aye. Twelve. And what’s it to you?’
An impish smile crawled onto Lars’ hard face, and he stuffed his hand into his leathers and pulled out a small satchel clinking with coin. He fetched from it the sum and held his hand out to the Collector. ‘For your trouble, sir.’
The Collector seemed sceptical at first, but upon feeling the copper in his fingers, he nodded a thanks to the boy. ‘No trouble. My duty, ‘s all.’ The Collector shoved the coppers into his robes and turned about, climbing onto his cart and producing a tiny oil lamp from beneath the seat. He lit it with a tindertwig and hung it from a wooden pole that had the lamp dangle at his eyelevel.
‘You’ll be on your way now, sir?’ Lars asked.
‘Aye,’ replied the Collector. ‘Must needs travel through the Whisperwood on the road to the capital. I’ll want to be disposing of these by first light.’ He thumbed at the pile of dead bodies behind him.
Alir stepped back a little, pressing himself against the house.
‘Traveling through the Whisperwood during the hour of the wolf?’ Lars asked. ‘Surely there are safer roads, sir?’
‘Safe?’ The Collector scoffed. ‘The Driver of the Dead is the safest man in those woods. Hyah!’ He cooed the horse along, and slowly the mare pulled the cart down the road, the big iron wheels leaving half-foot trenches in the mud.
The creaking of the cart became lost to the sounds of the swaying soldier pines and the light rainfall.
‘Lars,’ Alir said. ‘Thank you. I’ll repay you, you’re in my debt. Our debt.’
Lars smirked again. Fiana hated that smirk. ‘That is good to hear. But know that I did it out of neighbourly kindness.’ He inclined his head in that foreign custom. ‘That said, ‘tis good to know you’re in my debt.’ He said this, with his eyes in Fiana.
‘It will be good for you to know that my Brother doesn’t speak for me.’ Fiana said, dryly.
Alir gawked at her, and Lars canted a brow.
She waited a moment for her anger to pass. Despite his arrogance, Lars had helped them. ‘I mean to say… We’re grateful.’ She managed.
Lars’ smirk returned and he again inclined his head, stepping away from their house and through the mud to his lodge with his brothers and sisters. He stole one last look at Fiana before he closed the door behind him.
Alir stepped past his sister and into the house. ‘Come in, Fiana.’ He told her. ‘It’s cold. We must fashion you some mourning dress.’
Fiana didn’t move. She stood in the dark, watching the flickering candles of the streetlamps. It was said that in Dahrgenhal the roads were made of stone, and the streetlamps were oil. But the small villages had to make do, and Rahvenfell pulled itself along, through all the dark times.
The rain picked up, as did the wind. Fiana felt cold on her insides and stared up at the black sky as fat droplets of water splashed down on her pale face.
‘You should go inside, dear,’ The old woman next door said, as she rose to her feet, her knees dirty with mud from praying.
‘I should.’ Fiana said, opening her eyes and looking over at her silver-haired neighbour. ‘What did you pray for?’
The woman frowned. ‘Your husband.’ She said. ‘I prayed to Yord that he might keep your husband from rising.’
Fiana stared back at the woman as thunder rolled in the skies above so long and deep she could feel it in her lungs.
‘The dead always rise,’ Fiana told her. ‘Unless you burn them.’