GRIMDARK SHORT STORY
By J.D. Palmer
A long night ahead of me.
The list is given, and it has already been paid for. Forty-two bodies. I scan it, marking with my charcoal bit the stops I’m not familiar with. A lot of bodies, here. But there are a lot of bodies in front of me, too. The fucking Arena, the shallow track mixed with the pit where everyone can watch. Where the bodies are usually paid for long before they become what I get paid for.
I look at the schedule in my hand and at the bloody mess in front of me and curse. I don’t get paid extra for this. I get paid by the night.
Fool that I am.
The Number Man wants two corpses for dissection. Easy enough. But The Heiress is putting on another play and needs thirty warriors “soft on the hearts and without egregious woundings.”
Three other private clients, back door colors listed instead of street numbers, each asking for one woman each. I shudder. Those are worse than The Cobblers, and those are the folk that keep a roof over my head. And my mum’s. And my brother’s.
I need to count the bodies again. I already know The Heiress will be displeased but it was a bloody fucking bout and I don’t know if a man missing an arm and half a face is still “soft on the heart.”
Forty-two, but only with some reassembly. Three women that I think are intact enough to please and seven that aren’t. The Number man isn’t picky as long as everything is there and…
This is going to be a long night. The Heiress is going to balk over the pay, or ask for extra, and I’m going to have to give in because if I don’t then she’ll just send one of her Guilded Guards to beat me to death so that the quota is met.
It’s how I got this job in the first place.
I can give her extra bodies. And body parts. Perhaps she’ll be pleased with that. If she’s in a hurry she’s agreeable enough.
But then I won’t have anything for The Cobblers.
I should. But I need every scratched and burnt and dented copper out of them. Those men and women that ring the large cobblestone street that makes up Parlimdour. Huts and tents and all gathered around makeshift fires. Shaking hands as they pay for corpses. Food for breastfeeding women without husbands and for men who’ve been branded for raping above their station. The bereft. The lost.
I hate going there. I hate that no one looks me in the eye as they mumble the deal. I hate that they’re in a rush. I hate that I make them pay me.
And certain nights I hate that some look me in the eye. And some don’t look like they’re suffering that bad.
A long night, tis true.
Roses and lilies lie amongst the fallen. The two major factions of royalty, the young bucks and their coteries that get to sit close to the action, hurl their colors at the warriors. “A thorn to prick!” The Reds call. “And a Lily girl to laugh at the prick!” The princes that wear the white flower try and make others laugh at their jest, last week I was offered a gold ducket if I was to shake my fist in the air and applaud. Then they saw my apron.
Roses and lilies. And the free bread they sometimes hand out. And pieces of jewelry, too. Sometimes people throw the bronze amulets worn by their dead brother or sister, mother or father, uncle or cousin or whoever. If a warrior picks it up and wears it, then their family is honored.
That’s the nice way of saying it. They win an enormous amount of money, too, if their pendant is picked. Double what they paid just for a toss by the guards that run the low rail.
I never take them. I couldn’t. I just toss them off to the side. The armorer’s apprentice comes along after me. He doesn’t talk much. Arms and legs and cheeks all carved up as they are. But he talks to the dogs, sometimes. Same dogs that always come visit me.
I wade into it.
It’s always the same. I don’t know where to start until I’m forearms deep in, then I just haul, and pull, and stack. Then push. My cart can haul twenty max, but I’ll overload this first one by a hair, that’ll mean I can—
“Help. Help me.”
A gurgle. Then a cough.
I’m hearing things.
I’m frozen in the middle of the arena, arms beneath one of the dead men, waiting for something else to make a noise. None does. I start to haul again.
I drop the man. This isn’t part of the fucking deal. The stabber is supposed to come around, the special boy with the stick that makes more than I’ll make all week. Not that I begrudge him that. I didn’t get kicked by a donkey and am forever made to have that damn smile on my face. But still…
Not part of the deal. All are supposed to be dead. I’m not equipped to handle wounded. Haven’t, not in eight months of working this job.
A hand is waving at me, poking up from beneath two large bodies and thrashing as if drowning. The voice growing frantic. I feel my feet take a step forward. One. Then another. My mum pleads with me to get a new job. A better one. She always says, in between coughs, that this line of work makes me too hard. That people who see this much death stop caring. “How else are you going to find a woman to trod the rods with?”
She’s wrong. This line of work makes me see life for how precious it is.
“You hurt bad?” The best I can muster.
“My… My side. Just my side.”
I heave at the bulk that lies over him, a corpulent man with two large gashes across the backs of his legs, hamstrings gaping wide as if in dismay. I drag the body away and the man beneath hauls in breaths, deep gasps that sound dramatic but for the size of the man at my feet.
Maybe he was drowning.
He sits up, long, lustrous hair cascading over his face and shoulders. Slowly he regains his equilibrium, hands now straying to the side of a soiled doublet that is coated in red.
I pull my utility knife. I should put him down. Better this way. “You know the rules, here.”
“Aye. I do.”
The man lets out a groan, a groan that turns into a sad display of tears.
I don’t know what to do, all I feel is the sands in the Heiress’s clock running, the longer I wait the more carriages I’ll have to navigate through.
“I only did this to save my family. And now I can’t even do that.”
I squat down next to him, knife still in my hand. “Look, you got them the fighter’s fee, that counts for something, don’t it?”
“Yeah. I did that, I guess.”
Now the bad part. “But they counted the bodies, you know. And I have to take them… Certain amount has to be made, you know?”
I hold the blade loosely. Rather, my hand can’t grip it as tight as it does when I’m sawing off fingers. It’s sweaty. Weak. And something here makes the hair on my neck stand up.
“Well. You be doing it yet or what?”
The man is terrified. But defiant. All I can think is how our two situations probably aren’t that different. Separated by the turn of a loose cobble. How lucky I am to have this horrible job. Money, free bread, and flowers for the whores who own my building. Buys me a day or two of late rent.
“I don’t want to do it. But I can’t let you go.”
The man veritably crawls to my feet, I hear kissing sounds in the dirt. I’m repulsed. And heartened. I’ve never not been at the bottom of the barrel.
“Whatever you need to do.”
“I… I don’t need to do anything. I…”
I need help.
A new energy takes over. A proud energy. I can do right here, and get my job done. “You listen to me, and you listen well. I’ll lose not only my job, but my life if I help you out.”
The man stands, shuffles forward in the moonlight. Giant eyes, sparkling with unshed tears set in an all-too delicate face drink in every word I say. “If I get caught helping you, I lose everything. Everything! You understand?”
He nods vehemently.
“But you can help me. I have a lot to do tonight. And if we work fast, I can help you at least get back to your family.”
The man cries a bit more, shoulders shaking with large sobs. Then he edges out his foot, almost clumsily. I put mine on top, and then his on mine, and then my right foot planted on top of it all. The agreement of the slums. For if one falls, so does all.
“What’ll I call you?”
We don’t clasp hands, instead I clumsily clap him on the back and get to work. We make up a little on time, though the man isn’t as much of a help as I hoped. His side bothers him, I think, and he retches often. I start giving him feet to pull and he rips off part of his shirt to wrap around his face. Soon the cart is full.
I lash the mules and we make our way up, the cart rattling up the spiral alleyway that runs opposite to the main road. We pass the backs of houses, the muckers and horsemen nodding to me as we go. My companion gawps, mouth agape, staring as we go.
“We aren’t using the main road?”
I cast a sidelong glance at him. “Ain’t allowed on the main road. Not this cart.” He should know that.
The Heiress’s mansion sits at the bottom of the third tier, below the royalty and above the guildsmen. Appropriate for one who came from the latter and married into the former, thrice. The perfect place to throw parties, a mix of theater and burlesque and the Baudy-time music made popular by the Tanner Prince. A place for the highborn to drink and slum discreetly. I often get called to come pick up bodies from her place in the early morning, young men who offended someone who lives higher up on the hill or, more often than not, a pretty waif from just above the cobblestone ring who had been used and then discarded.
She’s beautiful, The Heiress, and I have two duckets tossed in the can saying she’ll be remarried this month. Good business, her weddings. I pull to a stop and one of her guards disappears inside. She comes out moments later, face painted with rose petals. Interesting. She wears a red dress with a plunging neckline, a ruby glistening at her navel. I’m careful not to stare, and I nudge my companion just in case.
She’s disconcerting, always handling her business in person. This is an exchange she could easily delegate to one of her men, but she always checks the bodies herself. Always haggles herself. Always pays me herself.
I’m still not used to it.
“These are…” She takes a deep breath as she peruses the cart. I cringe, waiting for her to be upset. Once I was forced to flee without payment. I’m hoping not to repeat that.
“These are wonderful.”
She holds up an arm, then reaches down and into the pile, pulling up a lily.
“Do you happen to have any more of these? I could use them tonight.”
“There might be a few, m’lady. It was dark.”
“Hmmph. No matter. How many are there?”
“Thirty m’lady. And three legs.”
“I want thirty-three.”
Of course you do.
“Then you shall have thirty-three, m’lady.”
“Thank you, m’lord.” She mocks me, then pulls a face as if even joking that I was an equal to her was abhorrent.
“Who is your friend?”
I turn to look at Sam. He is staring at the reins in his hands, face slightly turned away from her.
“He’s my… helper.”
“Ah. He looks like…” She licks her lips, a feral smile on her face, then thinks better of saying anything else about him. “You have been kind to me tonight.” She laughs at that, a throaty purr as she produces a purse from the gods know where. She rifles through it and then changes her mind, throws the whole thing to me. “You have caught me on a good night, corpse-man, don’t go using the extra on whores. Least not any carrying lichen.” She laughs again, departing, and I almost forget to move, the heft of the purse heavy in my hand.
Then the guard clears his throat, and I lash the mules forward. We unload the bodies in the paddock, attendants there to help. They are dressed in costumes and heavily painted, nymphs and sea creatures, a recurring theme here. They drag bodies and some are already applying makeup on them before we leave.
“I don’t like that she did that,” Sam says.
“What?” My mind is elsewhere, thinking about how much money sits on my belt.
“The rose on her face, and how she wanted lilies. I don’t like that.”
Sam is quiet for awhile, just the clopping of hooves as we spiral back down to the Arena.
“I just don’t.”
Doesn’t matter to me what he thinks. But I nod along and mutter something about how it’s not her place. Sam is a good luck charm, and he could say the moon is just a forgotten egg from the Farmer God’s basket and I’d agree with him.
We collect the rest of the bodies, Sam retching and covering his face again.
“Where we going now?”
I grunt, jolted from my reverie, my mind on the food I’ll be able to buy. Maybe get a new little stove, actually heat our little home. Might cure Mum’s cough.
I look at him again. How could he not know the Number Man? Every gritter in this tier has to see him at some point or the other. Not unless you want to see the hags down at the wharf.
“What part of the city are you from?”
He looks at me, startled by the question. “Uh, I wasn’t born in… well, you see, I came from the far side.”
Only one reason I can think of why a man would lie.
“You a deserter?”
He stares at me, then his shoulders sag, and he almost seems relieved. “Yes. Yes I am. And I’m ashamed of it.”
“You should be. That’s a good job there. And your family given your pension.” I’m surprised at how mad I am, but I was turned away from the barracks when I tried to join at fourteen.
“I know. I just…” He lapses into silence and I almost feel bad. The man can barely touch a dead body without bringing up his breakfast, I don’t doubt the military wasn’t for him.
“We’ll finish up tonight but then you’re going to have to leave the city. If you got the tattoo then it won’t take long for someone to notice. You’ll get sold to the whippers for a copper.”
The man stares at me, fearful eyes and a frown on his face. “You aren’t going to turn me in?”
“None of my business, as I see it. But I’m not going to pay you for helping me tonight. I think we’re even now.”
Sam smiles at that. “I think we are.”
The Number Man responds to the knock, the odd pieces of warped glass perched atop his sharp nose, stained robes flowing behind him as he ushers us inside. We drop the two bodies on the floor amongst the bits of discarded food and old bones and odd pieces of metal.
Another small sack of duckets.
And it’s not even midnight.
I quietly knock on the doors of two noble houses and one guildsman. Each time I’m shushed for being too loud. Two butlers help haul in the female bodies to the royal homes. The guildsman carries her inside himself, cradling the body as if it was his wife and they fresh from breaking rods. Sam watches from the cart, an incredulous look on his face.
He laughs after we depart. “I can’t fucking believe that. I really can’t.”
He speaks too loudly, and I shush him. But I agree, and I’m glad that he isn’t judging me for taking the bodies to them. It’s nice, actually, not being alone. Not working alone. Talking to someone as equals, almost, instead of shuffling between people needing something in one capacity or another.
There is a scrape on the stones behind us, and a patter of feet behind the cart. I smack the reins and the mules enter into a half-hearted canter.
“What’s going on?” Sam asks, a small smile on his face. As if I’m playing a game.
“Thieves usually don’t touch me, but…”
There is a shout behind us but I don’t slow down. I’ll run if I have to. They can have the cart and the three and one-quarter corpses left on it. As long as I can get home with the money.
Mum. Bruv. This is the beginning of a new life for us.
Last stop of the night. The worst. I entertain the thought of just unloading the bodies at the edge of the first small fire we see. I have the extra coin now, I can fudge the report once I get back to my master. I can say The Heiress bought them all.
And the rest of the money is all mine.
But just because tonight was good doesn’t mean the rest of the week won’t be bad. Lichen bodies or maybe the Queen will change her mind again and forbid the fights.
Best to be the one working and not the work to be done, as my mum says.
“What’s down here? Where are we going?” Sam has his arm up around his nose and mouth again. This time I don’t blame him. I’m used to the stink of the refuse, rotten fish and dead bodies and burning dungheaps. The water’s edge where all the cities detritus comes to gather… And never leaves. A little area of calm water next to the harbor where the placid water is at odds with the extreme desperation.
“Who? Who is that?” Beneath his forearm his eyes gleam with fascination.
“They eat…” I wave my hand towards the cart behind us, suddenly unwilling to meet his eyes.
“Are you fucking serious? Dear Gods…”
I get a tin ducket from a mother clutching a dead babe to her breast. We roll down the cobblestones and a man creeps forward, shaking hands holding a horseshoe, the iron nails still in it. Stolen from a city guard, perhaps. Certainly not found.
I give him everything.
I’m ashamed, and the easy going silence we had before has taken on a different undertone. I feel Sam looking at me, disgust in his eyes now, and I hate it. I hate that I have to do this. I hate what I’ve become.
This will change soon. My fortune has changed. And I’ll be better.
We roll towards the docks, and I pull to a stop outside of a Remlapian clipper.
“What’s going on now?” Sam asks, as if we’re still working.
I give him a smile. Reach into my purse and give him three duckets. “That should get you aboard, and… I wish you luck, Sam. It’s been… nice.”
I wish I hadn’t said that last part, but he grins at me, nodding his head. He doesn’t take the coins, though, and I feel the shame burn through me again. A deserter who won’t touch this money…
“Please, take it. I… I don’t like that I bring them here. I know they deserve better, I know it’s wrong.” I clamp my mouth shut, desperate to stop my babbling. Sam stares at me, that little smile still on his face.
He reaches out and takes the coins, then hops out of the cart, no sign that his side still pains him.
“Fare thee well, Phelim!” He yells it dramatically, loudly, and I almost shush him. But he was my good luck, tonight. And almost a friend. And I’ll take it.
He walks towards the ship, and I wait. If he can’t board I’ll take him somewhere else. Maybe he’ll decide to stay.
He shuffles towards the boat, casting glances back at me as he goes. Finally he stops, and his shoulders start shaking. Is he crying? His family is still here, after all.
I get out of the cart and walk towards him. “I might be able to help your family…”
He turns around. Not crying. Laughing. “Okay! I have to stop! I have to stop!”
I hear laughter from behind me, and I turn to see torches flare to life. Young men skip forward, breathless with laughter, a few young women too, though they hold their dresses up in the air and handkerchiefs to their faces.
“Sammy! I thought you were going to get on the boat!”
The royalty flow past me and gather around Sam, some offering their cloaks and some punching him on the shoulder and all wearing a large white lily on their tabards.
“I can’t believe you went this long!”
“You kissed his fucking feet you fucking gritter!”
Sam is beaming, smiling even as he holds fingers to his forehead. “That was… exhausting. Oh Gods that was hard.” He looks to his friends. “You have to do it, so much better than The Arena. And the things they do…”
He looks at me and his friends do, too.
I can’t, rooted in place by their looks and the torchlight.
“What are you going to do with him?”
Sam laughs. “Well, he’s going to help my family, so keep him around!”
The all laugh and I try to smile and I hope that, maybe, just maybe, he will.
“But he helped a deserter.” The smile is now gone from his face. “He changed his report to keep extra money from his employer. He brought bodies down here for fucking cannibals. And worse yet,” he raises a finger in the air, his companions smiling in anticipation, “he took money from a supporter of The Roses.”
Hisses of disdain. Of anger. And Sam walks forward, producing a dagger from underneath his soiled, but obviously expensive, doublet.
“Now your report is accurate he says,” sliding the blade up under my ribs.
I fall to the cobblestones, my world nothing but pain and agony and the misbegotten feeling of betrayal. “Please. No.”
Someone rips the purse from my belt. “Let’s see… Two drinks on me!”
The laughter and light fade away as they disappear into the darkness, on their way back to the top tier of the city, and the last thing I see before their torches disappear is the gleaming eyes as people creep out of the darkness towards me.