©2016 by Rayne Hall 

 

Dark Fantasy Story

 

Greywalker

 

Caution: This story contains violence.

Header art by Biljana Isevic, copyright Rayne Hall.

“You smell of death,” the witch said. Her age-mottled nose wrinkled in disapproval.

 

“You speak truly, honoured one.” Turgan bowed. “I am indeed dying.”

 

Oil lamps flickered between rodent skulls, and somewhere in the back of the cave, water dripped.

 

Turgan kept his gaze lowered, as befitted a man addressing a crone. “A fungus devours my flesh. Already my blood is sour and my liver is cold, and the healer says I'll cross the life-end river before the new moon. I beg your forgiveness for my discourtesy in entering your home under this shadow, but I need your help.”

 

The witch's eyes narrowed. “You think I will fight death for you? Go away, fool.”

 

He shifted his weight. Already, his knees ached from standing. “I just need more time.”

 

“Didn't you hear me? Even if I could prolong your life, I would not.”

 

She turned her skinny back to him and poked the embers beneath her cauldron. Apparently, he was dismissed.

Turgan refused to budge. Judging by the sand-white hair, the knot-gnarled fingers and the way the wrinkled skin folds hung from her thin frame, this woman had already defied death far beyond her allotted years. She knew how.

 

“Honoured one, I beg you, show me the path. I'll do what it takes... no matter how difficult, costly or dangerous.”

The witch fed the fire with dried camel patties and broken fir, and the flames spat yellow sparks. “That's what they all say in their greed for more life.”

 

Sensing the question behind her words, he snatched the chance. “I neither love life, nor fear death.”

 

She swivelled on her heels. “Then what do you want?” Her small eyes peered like those of a hawk fixed on its prey, but there was something else: interest.

 

“I was married. Thirty years ago.” He studied his sandalled feet rather than meet the condemnation he knew he would see in the witch's eyes. “I was young - we both were. Neither of us had sought the bond. Our parents' combined force...” The words came haltingly from his dry throat.

 

“I treated her like a possession. An unwanted one. And she... she tried to make the marriage work. Laina gave me her patience, her love. I gave her nothing. Nothing but hard words, violence and disdain. She suffered in silence, always forgiving, praying, hoping. Now I see clearly what a monster I was, but at the time, I blamed her for my unhappiness.” The words flowed faster now. “I chafed at the imposed bonds, I found fault with her conversation, her cooking, her body, her caresses. Being married to me was a daily torment, yet she never gave up. And then...”

 

The shame of recall washed his cheeks with heat.

 

“And then?” The witch pointed her poker at his chest.

 

“One day I just walked away, without apology, without explanation. Without farewell.”

 

“Ha! So now you want to harvest the fruit of the love you once disdained? The coming of death always makes such youthful fruit seem sweet.”

 

She fed another camel patty to the flames, and the fire's heat grew. Sweat trickled from Turgan's armpits and slid down his sides.

 

“Your victim has had thirty years to heal. Now you want to break open her wounds with your demands?”

 

“I want nothing from her.” Turgan met the witch's sceptical gaze. If Laina had built a new life and found a better man, he would rejoice with the gladdest spirit. But his actions had not been waterdrops that evaporated in the sun without leaving a trace. They had been cruel flames, scorching deep holes into Laina's defenceless heart. “All I want is to kneel before her and kiss the dust at her feet.”

 

The witch stared at him as if reading his soul. Hot fingers seemed to probe his insides for sincerity. Leaning still against the wall of the cave, he allowed it to happen.

 

At last, she ceased. “What about your obligations to the people in your life now? Your friends, your associates, your current family?”

 

“My affairs are settled, my debts paid, and no one will wonder where I have gone.”

 

Was there a small nod of approval? Already, she shot out the next question: “How far from here does your once-wife live? How much time would you need?”

 

“Ain-Elnour is in Koskara. In peace times, the journey would take two moons with a trade caravan. Now, with the borders closed and the land in the grip of war... four moons, perhaps five... if she still lives in Ain-Elnour. I may have to search.”

 

The witch was rubbing her chin and gnawing her lower lip, calculating.

 

“So there is a path?” Turgan stepped forward. “Tell me, honoured one. Tell me what I must do.”

 

“There is a path, but...” She studied him through narrow eyes. “Are you man enough to take it?”

 

“I am.”

 

“That path is difficult, dangerous and dark.” Her voice was grave. “You'll travel to Koskara, find your once-wife, and speak to her. You will be in your physical body - but you will not be alive.”

 

“A greywalker?” he whispered. Like a cold fist, understanding squeezed around his chest. “No! No, I won't do that.”

“What about your obligations to the people in your life now? Your friends, your associates, your current family?”

Her nose wrinkled, and her lips curled in contempt. “Anything, you said. Where's your courage now?”

 

With his arms locked across his chest, he shrank against the wall. “I will not eat human flesh!”

She barked a laugh. “What do you really know about greywalkers?”

 

Turgan had heard much about greywalkers - corpses buried without proper ritual rising from the dead, they walked among the living, often indistinguishable except by the grey hue of their skin. They possessed superhuman strength, could not be killed except with a dagger in the ear, and fed on the bodies of people still alive.

 

But that was hearsay. “Forgive my outburst, honoured one. I know nothing,” he admitted.

“When a dead person becomes a greywalker, their functions are like those of the person they were when alive. For a while they eat the same foods, think the same thoughts. Then their mind and body decay... unless they replenish their life force with human flesh. Once they feed on human matter, they become the feared greywalkers your mother warned you about.”

 

He nodded sharply to show he understood. His limbs were tiring from standing so long, his liver was clenching in sharp pain, and his guts churned at what this witch was telling him.

 

“This phase of living like a human,” she said, “it can last a few moments - mostly when a corpse has been buried without ritual and rises unaided - or it can extend for several moons - if the person wills it, and magic rites are carried out before death.”

 

“Those rites...” Turgan croaked. “You can do them?”

 

The witch opened her palm to show him a blade of black obsidian. “I will bleed you and collect your blood. That is the moment of your death. I will then blend your blood with water and salt and heat it in my cauldron, while working the spell. When I reinsert the blood into your body, you will be like you were when alive... only healthier, stronger, and dead.” Her lips curved into a smile. “I think you'll like it. This state lasts for five moons at least, sometimes more.”

 

“Five moons, and then I would start hunting humans for flesh?”

 

“That need never happen. Remember: Greywalkers can be destroyed with a knife in the ear. It's up to you to carry out the act. Find your once-wife, tell her what you mean to say, then go away and plunge a dagger into your brain.”

 

“Self-killing is an outrage in the eyes of the gods!”

 

“Ah, but is it self-killing if you're already dead?”

 

Turgan considered. Thirty years in trade had taught him the signs when someone lied, and this woman seemed to be speaking the truth. What did he have to lose? Nothing but a few days of increasingly pain-riddled life.

 

He straightened. “Do it.” Any delay, and he might be too ill to return, and his courage might fade. “Do it now.”

 

“If you're sure.” She gestured to the sheepskin on the floor. “Lie down.”

 

Pain creaked through his limbs as he lowered himself, but once he lay stretched out on his back, the softness of the fleece eased his aches.

 

The witch poured water into the cauldron, sprinkled salt, stirred and chanted. When she tossed frankincense on the embers, the sweet fragrance lulled him with its bliss.

 

Then she knelt and placed a large earthenware bowl on each side of him. Still chanting, she massaged each arm with warm fingers. There was a sharp sting on the inside of one arm, just below the elbow, then on the other.

 

“There, there,” she singsonged. “That's it.”

While his blood drained into the bowls, drowsy peace wrapped around him. His head felt light and dizzy, and his limbs grew cold. The chill deepened, seeped into his bones and lodged there.

 

How strange that the witch had not named a fee. In all Turgan's years in trade, he had never met someone who gave professional services without pay. Vaguely he wondered what was in it for her.

 

His consciousness drifted away, and the world turned black.

 

*

When he came to, his mind was floating, and his whole body prickled as if fireants were crawling in his veins.

“Once you've eaten, that sensation will pass,” the witch assured him.

She set a bowl of steaming grains on the rug between them, and he eyed the pale mound with suspicion. It looked like couscous, it smelled like couscous, it probably was couscous, but...

While his blood drained into the bowls, drowsy peace wrapped around him. His head felt light and dizzy, and his limbs grew cold. The chill deepened, seeped into his bones and lodged there.

“It'll be some time before you develop a taste for that - if it ever happens.”

Following her example, he took a handful. It was ordinary couscous, the kind he had eaten every day of his life. As his stomach filled with the familiar food, the crawling in his veins abated and the light-headedness ceased.

When he was ready to leave, she placed a hand on his arm. “It'll be up to you to know when the time comes, and to do what must be done.”

“I'll plunge the dagger into my ear,” he promised.

Her eyes held his. “Be ready. Keep a knife on you all the time.” Her words burned into his brain. “Remember: when you feel the need, use the knife.”

“I will.”

*

The sky twisted into a carpet of rugged orange above the darkening hills. Turgan rode along the sunken track up the slope.

Today, the jolts from the gelding's gait no longer pained his guts, nor did the dry heat sap his strength. Were it not for his tiring mount, he would press on day after day with scarcely a break.

Not knowing what obstacles lay in the war-ravaged land between him and Ain-Elnour, he must not waste one moment. He had frittered away too much time when he was alive.

Even though his guilt had weighed heavier on him with every year, and he had always intended to go back and apologise one day, there had always been other matters to pursue first: this business opportunity, that opening in trade, the chance to travel and study and get rich. He kept delaying until the day when he might have more time... until he had no more time left.

Not so now. Being a greywalker had not just boosted his stamina but focused his mind, and his purpose drove him on.

Cicadas burred incessantly. But beyond that, stillness pervaded the hills, and not even the twilight birds chirped their accustomed chorus.

A man leaped into the sunken track and planted himself before Turgan, blocking the way. The tip of his spear glinted red.

The steep banks flanking the path allowed no escape and left no space to wheel the horse around. The gelding shied away from the threat.

Turgan groped for the sheathed dagger in his belt.

“Now, be sensible,” a deep voice came from behind him, and something sharp poked between his shoulder blades. “Hand over your treasures, and we'll let you live.”

“I don't...” Turgan's words came as a dry croak. “I regret disappointing you, but I carry nothing of value.”

“This horse looks fine to me,” the attacker at the front said, grabbing hold of the reins without lowering his spear. “Get out of the saddle and drop your money belt.”

Without a mount, Turgan could not reach Laina before the five moons were out.

The second man gripped his leg.

Turgan's kick thudded on flesh and sent the assailant smashing into the rocky bank. With furious strength, he slammed a fist on the other man's head, grabbed him by the arm and tossed him out of the way. Bone cracked. In the space of a blink, both bandits lay on the ground, motionless and bleeding.

Turgan swung out of the saddle. He had used more force than intended, far more than he thought he possessed. The injured men were robbers, but they needed help.

When he was ready to leave, she placed a hand on his arm. “It'll be up to you to know when the time comes, and to do what must be done.”

The first bandit lay on his side, unmoving, with glazed eyes, and blood pooled under his lolling head. Turgan pressed a hand to the man's chest, then to his throat, and found neither breath nor pulse. Dead.

The other man lay crumpled in a bloody heap, his limbs smashed where Turgan had tossed him against the stony bank, with brains spilling in a grey pulp from the split skull.

Turgan's stomach churned, and his heart clenched. He had killed.

In these barren hills, he could neither bury the men nor give them a pyre, but he closed their eyes and plucked some of the measly blooms that persisted in the cracked earth. Flowers in the nostrils and ears were said to prevent corpses from rising. What irony that he, a genuine greywalker, should perform this rite.

He knelt beside the first man and spoke a quiet prayer.

"You think you can just kill a man's father and walk away?" a youthful voice shouted.

He turned. Standing on the bank was a boy of twelve or thirteen, clutching a spear.

“I'm sorry for your loss, boy,” Turgan said, rising. “If-”

The spear came flying. Turgan flung himself to the side, and the tip grazed his arm.

He had just time to snatch the dagger from his belt sheath before the boy jumped, knife drawn. Turgan's back hit the ground hard, and the assailant's crushing weight squeezed the breath from his chest.

Pressed to the ground with his hands behind his head, Turgan strained to get free. The boy was trying to prise the obsidian knife from Turgan's fingers. This must not happen.

He rallied the force of his muscles, twisted his hips, and dislodged his attacker. Entwined, they rolled on the ground, panting and fierce. Several times, the sting of the boy's blade bit, and Turgan just managed to stop it from cutting deeper. The boy had the fighting skill and the agility of youth, but Turgan's veins pulsed with a greywalker's strength.

He brought himself on top and gasped for air when pain seared into his abdomen. He rammed his knife into his assailant's neck. Then the world exploded in blinding agony.

He clutched at the centre of the pain. His hands met the wet dagger grip. Few people survived belly wounds. Through a haze of flaming hurt, he wondered how he could die if he was already dead.

Pain, pain, pain. Every move tortured him with liquid fire, and every breath hurt like a djinn's torment.

For a long time, he lay in agony, until he ripped the knife from his flesh and pressed a palm against the wound to stop his guts from spilling.

His belly churned with white-hot pain, but there was little blood seeping through his fingers. Could his body be healing?

At last, he was able to shift his weight, and an eternity later, he managed to rise to his knees and then his feet. He must get to Ain-Elnour.

His horse was gone; the three corpses lay where they had fallen. Although he grieved for the boy's wasted life, he would not risk another attack. Let the bandits’ relatives take care of the bodies and rituals.

Turgan found the gelding further up the slope. Climbing into the saddle was unthinkable, and he would not be able to bear the jolts of the ride, so he walked, trusting that the pain he endured with every step would ease.

Although being a greywalker did not make him impervious to pain, it granted increased focus, unending stamina, superhuman strength and miraculous self-healing. With these powers, he was as good as invincible. No longer did he have to steal past sentries and avoid armies. If needed, he could face them full on, and though it might bring pain, he could be sure to survive. This meant he could travel much faster than he had anticipated.

Best of all, not once during the encounter with the bandits had he felt a lust to eat their flesh.

*

After riding for days past scorched land and ruined settlements, the sight of Ain-Elnour greeted Turgan like a mirage. The ochre walls stood amidst plantations of shadowed green, palm fronds waved in the evening breeze, and the air was scented with oranges. His blood prickled with excitement, and his heart sang. Laina was safe, and his purpose was about to come true.

He made for the east gate, traditionally the entrance for merchants and caravans. A squat building of yellow limestone under a reddening sky, the gatehouse stood solid as always, but instead of local guardsmen, curl-bearded soldiers with leather helmets and bronze-tipped spears blocked his way.

“All horses are Darrian property,” their leader barked. “Get off.”

Turgan complied. Having reached his destination, he had no more need for a mount.

“Who are you? Whereto bound?”

“I'm Turgan, a native of this town.”

“Search him!”

Hard hands prodded and probed. They found his money and his knife, and confiscated both. “Natives are not permitted weapons. You have evidence of who you are? Where do you live?”

Shadows lengthened, and the air chilled. Turgan had planned to approach Laina gently, not shocking her with his sudden appearance, but the interrogation left him no choice.

“My wife lives in the house behind the caravansary. At least, that's where she used to live. I've been away for a long time. Her name's Laina - do you know her?”

The leader snapped a command. “Take him there.”

Two men grabbed him by the arm, a third walked behind him, spear pointing. Turgan could feel the sharp tip in the small of his back.

Daylight slipped away fast. Where once chickens clucked, children squealed and vendors sang the praise of their wares there was now a heavy silence, punctuated by the clap-clap-clap of soldiers’ sandals on the dirt-packed road.

Shadows lengthened, and the air chilled. Turgan had planned to approach Laina gently, not shocking her with his sudden appearance, but the interrogation left him no choice.

But the house with its whitewashed walls and jutting balcony still stood.

One of the soldiers pulled at the door curtain. Beads rattled. “Laina!” he bellowed. “You're in there? Come out!”

“Please,” Turgan requested. “May I greet my wife in private?”

The soldier on his right did not loosen the grip on his arm. “If she says you are who you claim, you shall live.”

Cold drops tingled down Turgan's spine.

Laina slipped out, a slight figure, with her arms held close to her body and one hand near her throat.

Joy shot through Turgan's chest, and immediately gave way to concern. She looked frightened, like a gazelle cornered by predators.

The soldiers pushed Turgan forward. “Do you know this man?”

She stared, and her mouth opened as if to scream. Then she backed away.

His stomach knotted. The sight of him scared her more than the soldiers did. Thinking he had come back to hurt her again, she would deny knowing him.

He fell to his knees and pressed his head in the dust. Her toes were small, brown and bare. “Forgive me, Laina. I beg you.”

The soldiers jerked him up.

Laina stood, eyes wide, cheeks pale. “Yes,” she croaked. Then, in a firmer voice, “Yes, I know him. This is Turgan. He's my husband.”

The knot of tension in his stomach loosened.

Laina reached for his hand. “Husband. Welcome home.”

*

In the semi-darkness inside, she invited him to sit on the rug. At this hour of the day, when the last of the dwindling sunlight fell through the windows, they used to light oil lamps for a cosy glow.

Moving with a gazelle's slender grace, Laina picked up a pitcher and poured water into cups.

As he sipped, he studied her delicate frame, her slender waist, her silky hair. Every feature of her face spoke to him with familiarity - the tilt of her nose, the curve of her neck, the shine of her dark eyes. Why had he never realised what a beauty his wife was? Maturity had added lines around her eyes and mouth, and silver highlights to her black curls.

She peeled an orange for him, with elegant yet deft fingers. Her small hands were more lined now, with callouses from work, but they were as pretty as ever.

He savoured the fruit's sweet succulence. When he noticed that Laina took not a single slice, he restrained his hunger and slowed. Food might be scarce.

“This is the happiest day of my life,” she said. “I was worried about you.”

It was the first time he had seen Laina happy, and it was a wonderful sight. Her eyes shone like lanterns, and her whole face lit up. He would not wipe that smile from her face.

Instead, he would let her enjoy her pleasure for a little longer, let her bask in the triumph that he was a reformed man and humble, that she had been right all along. Just for an hour. She deserved that.

“Have you...” She studied the pitcher. “... married again?”

“No. There's no one else in my life. And you?” He hoped she would say she had found a good husband, and at the same time, he dreaded it.

The bead curtain rattled. A stout man in Darrian uniform strode in, weapon belt clanking. He stopped, spreading a wave of perfume and sweat. “Entertaining guests? In my home?”

Laina rose and bowed. “Sir, this is my husband.”

The Darrian eyed Turgan up and down, scowling. “The husband? So you exist.”

Taking his cue from Laina, Turgan rose and bowed with courtesy before the bearded man. “I'm pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“My husband,” Laina said, defiance in her voice, “lives with me.”

The scowl deepened. “Very well. But keep him out of my way. I don't want him under my feet.”

He stomped up the wooden stairs to the upper storey.

Laina poured more water, her hands shaking. “Ain-Elnour has become Darrian army headquarters. Everyone has soldiers billeted on them. Kurush is an officer. The house is his now. I live in the closet at the back.”

Turgan choked on his orange slice. That closet was barely big enough for a dog.

“I'm lucky I didn't get deported,” she said quickly. “They deemed me too old to work in the salt mines.”

Even after thirty years, her smell touched him with powerful familiarity, a scent of milk and leather, of oranges and female sweat. The gods had blessed him by permitting him to inhale it once more.

Turgan groped for something positive to say. “At least it's an officer, not common soldiers.”

Laina studied her knees, with her mouth drawn tight. “Yes.”

Darkness descended. A horse whinnied somewhere outside.

Laina placed a hand on his elbow. “Shall we sleep?” she asked, her voice small. “They make us start work at dawn.”

Her fingers on his arm were warm and light.

*

The closet was so small, he had to lie with his knees bent, and although he tried not to touch Laina, she stirred in her sleep, and her back pressed into his chest.

Even after thirty years, her smell touched him with powerful familiarity, a scent of milk and leather, of oranges and female sweat. The gods had blessed him by permitting him to inhale it once more.

Gently, he rested a hand on her arm, and she did not shrink from the touch. But he made no further move. Just hearing her breath at the same time as his thudding heartbeat was the sweetest music of his life.

Tomorrow, he would tell her what he had become, and leave

In the morning, a neighbour popped in to pick up Laina. “Better hurry,” she warned. “Or we'll get punished.”

“Turgan's here.” Laina's voice brimmed with excitement. “Turgan has come back! I told you he would.”

“Yes, yes.” The woman frowned. “Tell me about it on the way there, but let's go.”

Even though the sun had not yet risen far above the horizon, the air was already starting to cook.

They met more people on the way, all flocking to labour in the plantation. Laina introduced Turgan to everyone. He recognised some who had been young with him. Some were cheerful, some sceptical; some indifferent, others hostile. He used the courtesy he had acquired abroad to convince them he was a reformed man.

Boherush, the Darrian overseer who yelled orders and cracked a whip, set Turgan to working the shadufs. The job involved lifting water from the oasis lake into the irrigation channels that watered the orange trees.

The work would have exhausted a normal man, but came easy with Turgan's superior strength and stamina. Under the constant watch of the overseer, he made a show of panting with effort and frequently wiping his brow. However, there was no chance to slip away.

He would have to wait until dusk. Or no - he might join Laina for one more evening meal, one more conversation, one more night.

*

That night, as they lay entwined in the cramped closet under the threadbare blanket, their touch grew to tenderness. For the first time, he sought to give pleasure rather than to take it, and the experience was sweeter than anything had ever been in his life.

The witch had said it would be five moons or more before he posed a danger to anyone. Since he had travelled faster than expected, he had at least two moons left. He could spend those two moons making Laina happy.

When that period was over, he would do what needed to be done.

*

The next days passed in a wave of happiness, a gift from the gods. Laina looked radiant; and he had brought this about. For the first time in his life, he tasted what it meant to love.

During the day, they laboured; at night, they loved in bliss. The only shadow was the perfumed Kurush who devoured Laina with his lustful gaze, licking his lips as he stared her buttocks and bust. Turgan suspected that he was molesting her not only with looks but with words, and he longed to smash a fist into that lecherous face. But assaulting an officer would bring severe punishment not just for himself but Laina, so he swallowed his anger and restrained himself.

By simply being around Laina, he could keep her safe. Darrians respected marriage, and it was unlikely that the Darrian would force his advances on someone else's wife.

Being able to protect his wife filled his heart with a bliss he had not known before. He must stay around for as long as he could.

*

Fig Moon held the land in its fiery embrace. The five moons had passed, so from now on, Turgan would have to watch for symptoms.

 

He checked his skin tone - still a healthy tan. He tested his strength on the shaduf - he could still operate it with a single hand.

He had to plan what he would do once the signs of decay set in. He had intended to stab the knife into his ear. That was no longer an option - not just because the Darrians had taken his knife, but because he had Laina to think of.

Laina was safe from advances only because Darrians respected marriage. As a widow, she would be acceptable prey and helpless against Kurush's force.

Instead of killing himself where his body would be found, Turgan would have to find a way to absent himself from Ain-Elnour, and not return.

But achieving that would be tricky. Turgan massaged his aching neck, pondering. Locals were not allowed to leave the town, except for plantation labour under the watchful eye of ... what was his name? ... the Darrian man with the whip.

With luck, the war would be over soon. The Darrians had as good as won, and the Koskaran surrender was imminent. Then the travel restrictions would lift and Turgan could disappear.

When he splashed water into his face to cool down, he saw that his palms had a grey tinge. A cold fist clenched in his guts. Had the time come?

Fig Moon gave way to Olive Moon, yet the heat did not feel any less intense. The sun sucked the moisture from Turgan's pores.

When he splashed water into his face to cool down, he saw that his palms had a grey tinge. A cold fist clenched in his guts. Had the time come?

It might be a trick of the light, because colours always paled at noon.

He waited until the sun stood three finger breadths above the horizon, then stepped into the shade as if to relieve himself. He studied his arms, turned them over, found what seemed to be the beginnings of grey. The grey of his feet probably came from dust, but the knees...

A whip cracked. “Back to work,” the overseer bellowed.

“Yes, sir.” If there was grey in his arms and legs, was his face turning grey as well? Just in case, he pulled the broad-brimmed straw hat deeper into his face.

He returned to the row of shadufs, found the one he was supposed to operate, and resumed work. If the greyness had started, how long before his body and mind began to decay?

If the time had come to end his existence, this might be his last day. The palm fronds waved their rich green, and the water in the buckets glistened. Cicadas rasped, birds chirped, and a child gurgled with laughter.

Life was beautiful. Every fibre of his awareness wanted to live.

He tested his body's strength once more and found it unimpaired, so there was still some time.

That evening, he found Laina cooking, and Kurush leaning over her, much closer than could be explained by reason or necessity.

When Turgan cleared his throat, the officer jerked up, and, as if unaware of Turgan's presence, ambled up the stairs. He left behind a cloud of perfume and sweat.

*

More days passed.

“You're not looking well, husband.” Concern swung in Laina's voice. “Are you sickening?”

Against the healthy tan of her arm, his skin looked grey. Hastily, he pulled his arm behind him.

“It's just the heat. After so many years, I'm no longer used to the climate.” He turned his head to the side, avoiding her eyes, and laughed a little. “I guess I'm getting old. I can't take the heat the way I used to.”

It was true: he was ageing. His stamina left faster than before, his knees creaked when he lowered himself to the rug, and his memory faded in patches.

But age was a natural process. Old people could still enjoy life. So why not he?

He would hang around, serve Laina's happiness, protect her from the officer's lecherous advances, and all the while, he would age the natural way.

All would be well as long as he did not eat human flesh, and he would never do that.

Even when the officer undressed Laina with his eyes, all Turgan wanted was to crack the man's head against the wall and watch the brains spill out. Not for one moment did he desire to eat.

*

The prolonged heat baked the ground to the hardness of bone, leached the colours from the oasis and suffused the town in dusty grey. Turgan's knees creaked like an overweighted shaduf, and the sweat streaming from his armpits dried before it could trickle down his sides. While the townspeople laboured in the heat, the Darrians sipped mint tea, pestered the local women and cracked their whips.

The perfumed one squatting upstairs in Turgan's house was the worst. He slapped Laina's buttocks and groped her bosom, and all she could do was grit her teeth and cry.

If Turgan wanted to rip into a man's flesh, it would be this one. Of course, he would never do such a thing. That was just the memory of a bizarre fever dream. He had been seriously sick abroad, and a healer had cured him with her ritual.

Even when the officer undressed Laina with his eyes, all Turgan wanted was to crack the man's head against the wall and watch the brains spill out. Not for one moment did he desire to eat.

It was good to be home with Laina where he belonged. She was such a sweet woman. Why had he ever left her?

She looked so graceful when she knelt by the cauldron, stirring couscous to the boil.

The food, however, was monotonous: couscous every day, and either lentils or olives. Never meat, not even a sliver of mutton or a chicken wing, or any of the delicacies he used to have every day.

“Why don't you cook something different for a change?” His voice came out grumpier than he intended, but he craved the variety.

 

She lifted a spoonful of couscous from the cauldron to test its consistency. “Like what?”

“Meat. Mutton, goat, chicken, anything.” His mouth filled with water at the thought. It had been an eternity since he last had meat.

“They don't allow us meat,” she said.

“That doesn't mean we can't get any.” Just thinking about it made his stomach lust and his tongue swell with need. “Procure some for tomorrow, will you?”

“How would I do that?”

“The Darrians have meat, don't they?”

When her mouth opened as if in silent protest, he snapped, “By the Great Mare, you're not stupid. Get us some meat. Do what it takes.”

With her lips pressed together, she nodded, and ladled couscous into his bowl.

He took a handful. Although fluffy and perfectly cooked, it tasted of nothing. He yearned for the salty-sweet meat dish, something he couldn't quite recall, probably something he'd eaten abroad.

With every handful of couscous, his discontent grew. How dare the Darrians keep all the meat! That bastard up there, he was probably hoarding it. In the rooms where Turgan was no longer allowed, there hung probably dried sides of camel and beef. He could practically smell the meat upstairs, could feel it in the tremor of his hands.

Tossing the empty bowl down, Turgan leaped up.

“Where are...” Laina started, but he ignored her and rushed up the stairs, taking two steps at once.

He tore the felt curtain open.

The Darrian reclined on a cushioned couch. “What is it?” he snapped.

“Where's the meat?” Turgan demanded.

The Darrian sat up. “Get out of here this instant or I'll have you whipped.”

Turgan refused to budge. He scanned the room. Every nook was lavishly lit with lamps. Rugs and cushions, his and Laina’s from their earlier life, were crammed everywhere – but no sides of mutton, no strips of beef.

When her mouth opened as if in silent protest, he snapped, “By the Great Mare, you're not stupid. Get us some meat. Do what it takes."

Turgan's thighs, his stomach, his fingers, everything trembled with hungry need. He grabbed the Darrian by the throat. “Meat,” he growled. “Meat.”

Still the man squirmed and thrashed in his grip. Turgan's hunger flamed into a raging inferno. Only meat could relieve his need.

 

“When you get the need, use the knife,” someone had warned. An old woman's voice. Entreating, persistent. “Remember. Need. Knife.”

Turgan did not have a knife, but the Darrian had a big one in his belt.

Need. Knife.

He snatched the knife from its sheath, rammed it into the abdomen, slit the man open. Blood spilled, then organs.

He slurped the hot, sweet, salty flesh, chewed the juicy kidney and squeezed the creamy liver between his tongue and the roof of his mouth to savour its nutty taste. Like a thirsty man at an oasis, this was what he needed. Already, strength infused his limbs, prickled in his veins.

Invigorated, he saw with clarity what he had forgotten: That old woman, she was his lady, his mistress, his queen. He existed to serve her.

By eating flesh, he nourished himself, but by eating the heart, he could prolong his queen's life. She counted on him. He reached into the crimson-wet hollow, grabbed the ribs and pulled. Bones snapped like celery stalks, and the ribcage cracked open.

He ripped the heart free from its ropes and cradled it in his palms. Soft-curving, glistening, brown.

He savoured the first bite of its muscular succulence, then the next. Yes. This was his purpose, his bliss.

A scream rose from the door, howling and shrill.

Laina was staring at the mangled body, then at Turgan's blood-dripping hands and face.

“Don't cry,” he soothed. “All will be well.”

Knowledge washed over him: she was the purpose he had come to Ain-Elnour. His whole body with every fibre told him what he must do. She had a tender heart, it would taste good, and it would nourish his queen.

Author's Note

I wanted to try my hand at a zombie story, and I wanted set it in the fantasy world I had created for Storm Dancer, so I invented the ‘greywalkers’, a kind of zombie that fits into the mythology of that culture.

The story takes place at the same time as the final chapters of Storm Dancer.

The story is included in the collections The Colour of Dishonour and Thirty Scary Tales,

as well as the anthology Undead: Ten Tales of Zombies.

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