|A Ratcatcher's Tale Part 4
The fate of Rolf...
|A Ratcatcher's Tale | Published 11 August 2009|
ROLF OPENED HIS eyes, sticky and gummed with tears, and let out a groan of pain. For a moment he couldn’t remember where he was, then his eyes focused on the glistening arched roof of the chamber and he smelled the burned meat and spoiled blood smell of the butcher’s slab. Fractured memories of the last few hours came back to him and he rolled onto his side, retching and trying to shut out the horrors he hoped were only dreamed.
He lay in the centre of an iron cage, still dressed in his ratcatcher’s rags and with his leg chained to the wall by an iron fetter. Mouldy straw covered the floor, much of it stained red with wet blood. He spat out a stream ropy phlegm to rid his mouth of a bilious, acrid taste and wondered why he was still alive. What did the rat-men want with him?
They were gone for now, though, and that was enough.
His face hurt where the green fire had burned him, and he reached up to touch his cheek.
Rolf’s mouth stretched in a silent grimace of horror as he saw that his right arm was now muscular and covered with coarse dark hair. The arm moved at his command, the fingers flexing and turning with a thought, but it wasn’t his. Rolf looked over at the butcher’s slab, remembering the bundle the hunched rat-thing had brought in. He stared in horror at the arm, now seeing the terrible stitches and bronze hinges zigzagging across his shoulder where this grotesque limb had been attached.
He tore at the stitches, but whoever had grafted this new limb to his body had done their work well – they were impervious to his feverishly scratching nails. Exhausted and horrified, he slumped against the bars of the cage, weeping at the horror of what had been done to him. The new arm was heavy and he could feel corruption within its blood.
Rolf buried his head in the hand he could still call his own and wept, dreading the moment his captors would return and either kill him or visit further horrors on his body. Between choking sobs, a strange noise slowly began to penetrate Rolf’s misery, a series of wheezes, like an old man with lung rot coughing out his last breath. Rolf recognised that sound immediately and looked up to see a familiar little form crouched in a pile of brickwork beside the hole in the wall.
‘Mandred!’ said Rolf; absurdly grateful to see his little terrier had escaped from the rat-men. The dog padded across the floor towards Rolf’s cage, sniffing the air suspiciously and keeping a wary eye on the door at the far end of the chamber.
‘It’s alright, lad, they’ve gone,’ said Rolf, holding his human arm out to the dog.
Mandred squeezed between the bars, and Rolf stroked his mangy head, knowing he’d never been more grateful to see a friendly face than he was right now. Mandred yapped silently, his stump of tail wagging back and forth as he ran in circles before the bars of the cage.
‘I can’t fit through, lad,’ said Rolf, lifting his hideous new arm. ‘And I ain’t sure I’d be welcome on the surface no more. The Watch would like as not string me up as a mutant or get a witch hunter to burn me up. No, I ain’t going nowhere now.’
Rolf caught sight of something on the floor beyond the bars of his cage, and his eyes narrowed as he saw the bone cubes that had fallen on the floor as he’d grabbed the longrifle. A plan began to form in his mind and he pulled himself to the furthest extent of the fetter binding him to the wall.
He reached out with his grotesque new arm, straining as far as he could, his clawed fingers scratching the stone floor in an attempt to flick the cubes closer to him. The longest claw caught the edge of one of the cubes and it fell onto its side, obscuring the black star and revealing a symbol shaped like a hammer. He caught it again and it hit a second cube, sending them both rolling towards him.
Rolf scooped them up triumphantly and lay back against the bars.
‘I can’t get out of here, lad,’ said Rolf. ‘But you can.’
Rolf reached inside his jerkin, removing the pouch hidden in his jerkin beneath his armpit. He lifted out the contents of the pouch and placed the two cubes inside. He quickly tied the pouch to the collar around Mandred’s neck and patted the terrier fondly one last time before pushing him back through the bars of the cage.
‘Go, lad,’ he said. ‘Get back to the surface. Take these damn things to Sergeant Mueller, show him what’s down here and bring him back. Get him to burn these bastards out.’
Mandred gave one last silent bark and backed out of the cage. The dog simply stared at Rolf and wouldn’t move, no matter how he tried to shoo him away.
‘Go, you stupid mutt!’ cried Rolf. ‘Get out of here before they come back!’
Mandred sat down beside him, his head cocked to one side.
Then the door at the back of the chamber opened with a creak of wood on stone and Mandred bared his teeth as the hooded figure with knives for fingers entered.
This time the dog needed no encouragement, and bolted for the hole in the wall that led to the sewers. The rat-thing saw the dog and squealed in anger, moving quickly around the butcher’s slab with a host of blades clicking out from its hands. Mandred ran as fast as he could, but there was no way he was going to outrun the rat-thing.
Rolf tossed what he’d taken from his hidden pouch through the bars of his cage and onto the ground, hoping against hope that his luck had changed. The three caltrops tinkled musically as they landed, the traps rolling upright with vicious spikes aimed upwards.
The rat-thing stepped on the nearest caltrop and the rusty spike stabbed up into its foot. It fell to the ground with a squealing bray of pain, rolling on top of another caltrop, and its cries were music to Rolf’s ears.
Mandred scampered through the hole and, with a last look back at him, disappeared into the tunnels. Rolf cheered as his dog made its escape, backing away from the bars as the rat-thing climbed to its feet.
‘You’re going to burn, freak,’ said Rolf. ‘My dog’ll bring the witch hunters down on you.’
The rat thing didn’t answer, simply drawing a wheel-lock pistol from its belt and aiming it at Rolf. Green smoke drifted from the firing pan, and Rolf just hoped the weapon would blow up in the rat-things hand.
‘Man-thing no use now,’ it said, and pulled the trigger.
Rudi and Willi watched the small dog pull itself from the culvert that emptied the sewers into the river on the edge of the docks. The dog shook its patchy coat free of the scum and filth of the tunnels, before turning its face up to them. It wagged a stumpy tail and clambered up towards the quayside where the two muddy urchins sat.
‘Hey, boy,’ said Rudi, waving the dog over. ‘Come here.’
‘What you doing, Rudi?’ asked Willi.
‘I just want to see what its name is.’ said Rudi, ruffling the hair on Mandred’s head and looking at his collar.
‘Okay then,’ said Willi. ‘So what’s its name?’
‘I dunno,’ said Rudi. ‘Ain’t got no tag, just a little pouch or something.’
‘Anything in it?’
‘Gimmie a second and I’ll tell ya,’ snapped Rudi. He loosened the pouch from around the dog’s neck and dropped a couple of bone cubes into his palm.
‘I dunno,’ said Rudi. ‘Should we keep the little fella?’
‘What do you want with a dog, Rudi?’ asked Willi. ‘We ain’t got enough to feed ourselves, let alone a mangy scrapper like this.’
‘I know, but maybe he could catch rats for us, he looks like he’d be a good ratter.’
Willi looked doubtfully at the terrier, who squirmed in Rudi’s grip, knocking the bone cubes from his hand.
They rattled on the stone of the quay, one landing with a hammer face up, the other a symbol that looked like an eagle, like Willi had seen on some Altdorf soldier’s uniform.
‘I got a better idea,’ said Willi, taking the dog from Rudi and pointing further down the street to where a fat man in a greasy apron stood hawking his wares, ‘That’s Godrun the Pieman, he’ll give us a couple of brass pennies for ‘im…’