22 July 2009

A Ratcatcher's Tale

A lowly ratcatcher stumbles upon something sinister

A Ratcatcher’s Tale– Part 1By Graham McNeill

     LIGHT FROM THE lantern hanging on Rolf’s ratting-pole glittered on the sluggish effluent, illuminating the darkened sewer tunnel with a weak, yellow glow. The brickwork was old and crumbling, the ledge following the course of the tunnel treacherous and pocked with holes to trip the unwary. More than one of Altdorf’s ratcatchers had found themselves up to their neck in the filth-scummed water of the sewers, but Rolf had walked these tunnels for longer than he cared to remember, and knew his way around in this twilight world better than he did the world above.

     Taking a long drag on his pipe, he let out a cloud of acrid smoke. Thoralf’s tobacco was foul, the best part of it sweepings from the floor of his barber-surgery, but it was cheap, and covered the worst of the sewer stench. The few copper coins he had left in his purse were for lodgings at one of the cleaner almshouses, and more expensive tobacco was a luxury he couldn’t afford. He spat a mouthful of phlegm into the water, pausing in his rounds as a coughing fit wracked his body.

     Mandred halted and turned to bark soundlessly at him, the small terrier impatient to get on with the business of catching rats. Thoralf had cut out the dog’s bark as a pup, for a ratcatching dog that barked and scared off its prey was no use to anyone. The dog was thin and its coat was bare where mange had taken great lumps of its hair, yet he was a fierce little tyke, with vicious jaws and the temperament of an angry goblin.

     ‘Part wolf, aren’t ya, lad?’ said Rolf, receiving a wheezing growl in reply.

     Rolf wiped his mouth with the filthy sleeve of his threadbare jerkin, the animal traps and small caltrops hanging from his rope belt tinkling musically as he moved. He leaned on his rat-catching pole, the spiked collar on the end rusted and flaking. Four rats already hung from the nails securing the collar, and Godrun the Pieman would pay a copper for each pair. Another four and he could return to the surface. This night’s pickings were thin, which surprised him, for times were hard in the world above.

     And hard times for people meant good times for rats.

     Sickness was in the city, and Rolf had seen dozens of bodies lying in the gutters and rubbish-choked alleys being gnawed on by fat-bodied rats. The town fathers were anxious to stop the spread of this latest pox, but the money they were offering wasn’t as good as he could make selling rat corpses to the pieman.

     Rolf had heard of some ratcatchers who bred their own rats to cheat the burghers of small towns, but that seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Besides, Rolf actually enjoyed his work, preferring the solitude and quiet of the sewers to the bustle and noise of the world above.

     Recovered from his coughing fit, Rolf set off once more along the tunnel, keeping his eyes peeled for signs of a nearby rats’ nest. He had a feeling there was a big one nearby. He’d seen a number of tracks in the filth at the last junction, and the stench of rats, rank and wet and festering, was stronger in this direction.

     The walls dripped with moisture and a fat droplet landed on Rolf’s cheek. He reached up to wipe it away, surprised to see his finger was smeared with red. He sniffed his finger and his yellowed tongue tasted the unmistakable metallic tang of blood.

     He looked up and stepped back with a shocked gasp.

     Gripping the rung of a rusted ladder bolted to the tunnel’s curved wall was a human hand, severed at the wrist and weeping blood.

     ‘Sigmar’s oath!’ he hissed, staring up at the stump of wrist. ‘How did that get there?’

     That was a good question, for it looked like the hand had been cut with a single blow. Had the hand’s owner been surprised while climbing down into the sewers or had he been fleeing to the surface when he had been attacked? Whatever the case, his grip on the ladder was fierce enough that not even death had broken it.

     The back of the hand bore peculiar ridges of angry red skin, marks that looked very much like a brand. Rolf held his lantern close to examine them.

     Three lines were branded onto the skin, forming a rough triangular shape, but he didn’t know what it signified. It certainly wasn’t a guild mark or a gang symbol. Beneath the brand, almost obscured, was a tattoo depicting a naked woman embracing a cannon.

     ‘Jakob?’ said Rolf. ‘Jakob Klein of Nuln, is that you, you ol’ nenny?’

     There was no doubt about it. This hand belonged to another ratcatcher, a dour man from the south who’d come to Altdorf a few years back. A good ratter, but Rolf had heard he’d died of the plague last week. Apparently not…

     ‘That’s a strange one, and no mistake,’ he mused to Mandred, lowering the lantern and seeing that he stood in a sticky pool of coagulating blood. Drag marks showed that something heavy had been dragged from here. The blood was still wet and warm, so perhaps Jakob might be alive.

     Rolf hooked the lantern back onto his pole and set off down the tunnel, following the blood trail that led from the ladder. He’d gone barely a hundred yards, when Mandred stiffened, the terrier’s jaws pulled back over his teeth. Rolf eased the iron shutters of his lantern shut and squinted against the darkness. A soft green light was coming from just around the next bend and a number of jerking shadows were thrown out onto the glistening walls.

     Rolf was by no means a brave man, but a fellow ratter had been attacked. The brotherhood of ratcatchers was a fickle thing, but he hoped that if he were lying injured down here then someone might do the same for him.

     ‘Come on, Mandred,’ whispered Rolf. ‘Let’s see what’s going on, eh?’

     He reached down for his short-bladed skinning knife and crept toward the shadows.

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