Special thanks to Samuel Parr
Why? Why? Why?
Why did he bring me back again?
That’s what Servus thought as he opened his eyes and knew the stab of the cold again and the smell of damp, unwashed dog-fur. Only what he thought, of course, never what he said. What he said was: Thank you. Thank you so much master. Thank you kind, kind master. It’s what Servus had to say.
His name wasn’t really Servus. That was the name his master had given him. His master loved the old languages—‘servus’ meant slave in Latin. He couldn’t remember what his real name was; Master Craven had taken him in as an infant. He’d been cast aside by his real parents and found a squirming pink creature, wriggling in the dirt like an overgrown worm. That was Master Craven’s favourite story to tell, to remind him just how much he’d done or him. And Servus was grateful. Very grateful for the master’s kindnesses.
“How do you feel?”
That voice! Like a steel edge licking wet skin and then twisting into the cut. It could turn on a heartbeat. Even after everything he’d felt and heard and seen, Servus still shivered when it kissed his ears. He turned his head and realised he was alone. Grey walls surrounded him, rugged as cliff-slopes. Master Craven spoke from somewhere else. Disembodied.
Servus tried to flex his fingers. They were rigid, as if the reanimating energies hadn’t yet spread through his whole body. The bones cracked as if they were on the verge of breaking like brittle sticks. Servus felt older than the castle itself. He lifted his head, a dizzying effort, and saw the red line around his wrist.
“You gave me back my hand master. Thank you!” The gratitude was real this time. How could he accomplish any of his tasks with only a stump? But it wouldn’t have been beyond Master Craven to play a joke as cruel as that.
“Yes,” the voice said. Servus realised it reminded him of different types of sword depending on his master’s moods. Now it was a smooth scimitar spelling calligraphy in the skin on his back, but he’d heard the merciless broadsword too, brutal as a guillotine. “Next time you must be more careful when you feed the dogs.”
But you starved them and covered me with animal fats before you sent me in, master.
Shut up! Shut up! He can hear you!
He didn’t know just how far Master Craven’s powers stretched—after all, he’d conquered death. Not even after all the decades of service he had given could he read his master, either. As far as Servus was concerned he knew his every thought and fear and hope. Not that Servus had any hopes other than one day to be allowed to die forever. But then he knew that some things were too much to hope for.
He sat up in the dark cave and gingerly applied weight to his new-sown wrist. He half expected it to snap off at the slightest touch. He couldn’t forget the image of it hanging by a thread of skin, fingers still dancing as if the palm was being tickled.
“I will master. I will! I promise master. Would you like me to feed them now?”
In his ears the echo of the last sound he’d heard before the death played like a half-remembered tune: the barks of the dogs and the snap of their teeth, their wicked, wicked teeth…
“No need,” the voice said. Where is he speaking from? “I have another more important task for you. You must be hungry, Servus? You have slept a long time. It was harder for me. But don’t fret: I will always be able to bring you back. Now, prepare a table for two to eat. Kill the fattest lamb. Use the best spices. Unearth the best wine from the cellars. Lay the table in the dining room: a feast fit for kings. And we’ll eat.”
Servus heard his own stomach growl loud as the dog’s barks. His mouth went wet and he felt his lips slackening.
“Yes master! Yes I will, master!”
He stood up on his crooked bow-legs, more like a stooped goblin than a man.
“Yes, my master?”
“Please, save eating till the dinner; I know you will be tempted to eat before then, but be good!”
He scampered to the door and pushed it open, revealing a long, thin line of stairs up to an entrance through which light poured like water through a broken dam. He tripped twice on the stairs. He couldn’t see the steps any more clearly than a grey blur. His eyes were getting worse and the light stung.
When he stepped out he saw a patch of sodden green with grey pillars looming out of the earth. The graveyard. The master had brought him back inside a tomb. A taunting reminder? As he passed he looked at each of the gravestones, their dates and numbers no more than black squiggles to Servus. Not only were his eyes failing, but his master had never taught him to read, only to speak the vernacular tongue: Anglo-Saxon, and even then he’d been selective. Sometimes, when the master sent Servus on errands down to the village, he heard new words that he couldn’t make sense of. He tried to remember them, but his brain felt like a hand coated in slick oils. Whenever he tried to hold onto anything it only slipped further from his grasp.
At least the air clears the smell of dog-fur. Almost in answer to his thought, he heard them yapping over the other side of the castle, their growls as throaty as a demon’s roar. And all the while I’ve been asleep they haven’t been fed. He shuddered as he thought of the slavering hunger. His own belly rumbled.
He picked his way between the stones and crossed the keep’s courtyard. The courtyard was broad as a town market square, and in days gone by might have doubled as one. It was a bare cobbled space that was walled in on three sides by the castle itself, and on one by the gate down to the mountain path. He found the door to the cellar stores and went in.
When he had prepared everything Master Craven asked he brought the plates one by one to the dining hall and laid them out. He worked underneath the massive arches like vast ribs of a leviathan from the old book, filling the entire long table with meats and platters of fish and fruits and garnished vegetables taken from the master’s extensive supplies. His fingers were less responsive than they’d been, and several times he’d screamed with rage as he was forced to discard what he’d made and try again. But now he had finished. His stomach gurgled all the way to the dining hall—shuddering and crying for food.
When he’d set the table, the master appeared, as if he’d been watching and waiting for the moment. The doorway to the hall swung open as if pushed by invisible hands. Master Craven looked like the black slit pupil of a dark eye. Always hooded. Always robed. Once, Servus had looked up from the floor into the shadows of the hood and caught the briefest glimpse of a face so weathered it could have been dark rock moulded by the touch of acid, but then the hood had shifted over it and the master had continued his beatings.
“My, my Servus, what a feast you have prepared!” He clapped his hands together. They were gloved too, of course. No part of his skin showed. Servus heard the squelching sound of the leather, as if it was being wrung dry. “I trust you resisted temptation?”
“Of course master! I didn’t touch a scrap. Not one bite!” There was no point in lying to Master Craven. He always could dig out the truth, however deep you buried it.
“Well, I shall have to reward you for your restraint.”
“Thank you master,” he croaked. “Thank you.”
Servus bowed at the waist; he couldn’t incline his head or back. His spine was as misshapen as his legs: too many vertebrae created a bulbous hump that jutted his neck forward, eternally lowering his head in a motion of servile obeisance, like a dog whimpering.
Master Craven put his two black-gloved hands under Servus’s chin and gently lifted his face. Servus stared into the black cloth of the hood from which the terrible voice issued, the voice which had made him do so many twisted and painful things. He trembled. It was an effort to stop his crooked knees from failing under him.
“You have out done yourself!” the voice said, soft as a lover, although Servus understood love in the same way as words: no more than strange runes on the paper that tantalised some mystery. He imagined it on delirious nights when he was sure the master could not sense his thoughts: wild fantasies of him fucking the women he’d watched his master fuck.
“Thank you master.”
“She will be most pleased!”
A shadow fell between Servus and Master Craven and he turned to see a woman in a scarlet dress framed in the doorway. Her figure was voluptuous and full, barely contained in the dress, like ripe fruit bursting from its skin. He did not dare stare, but cast his eyes downward. He’d been punished before for ogling his master’s women.
She reached out, curtseyed and took the master’s gloved hand, kissing it. The master has a new toy. The master has a new favourite.
“Pour our guest some wine, Servus.”
He scampered to obey. The scarlet woman didn’t grace him with a look. The two sat themselves at the table. The smell of the feast rose and rose in Servus’s nostrils, building up like smoke in his lungs. With shaking hands he poured wine from a silver jug into two rich goblets. He placed them on a tray and stumbled over to them. Master Craven took both cups and handed one to his lady. They drank. Servus caught the briefest glimpse of a chin under the hood over which a line of red liquid ran. There were more lines and gouges in the skin than in a shattered mirror. The woman’s lips reddened.
“Thank you, Servus,” the master said, wiping his chin and restoring the hood. “You may leave.”
Servus froze. But the food… He swallowed and the tasteless spittle slid down his throat: unsatisfying, making him thirst and hunger more.
“But master…master I’m so hungry. Please…”
The hood showed nothing. Servus had long ago learnt not to watch the hood. He watched the hands. The index and middle fingers on each of them twitched.
“My, my Servus, I never thought you a glutton.” The master stood. Servus felt his eyes watering with tears. It was all happening again. All over again. He’d thought for a few brief seconds things would be different. But they will never change and you will never die. “Isn’t he greedy?” he said, to the woman in red. Without looking at Servus, she nodded. She took another long drink from her wine.
“Master, I never meant…”
“You want to eat?”
“No master! No…I…”
“Well then, you will eat everything on this table.”
Servus stooped yet further over the table and tore off a section of chicken with his fingers. He put the sliver in his mouth and chewed. The chewing itself was agony, his gums were half-rotten and he had only fragments of teeth remaining, but the taste—oh the taste was so sweet!
“That’s hardly the way a hungry man eats,” Master Craven said. He walked around the table and stood next to Servus. He twisted off one of the chicken’s legs in his gloved hand. He held it up before Servus, as if for inspection. “Come on! Eat!”
He rammed the chicken leg into Servus’s mouth.
He began to chew, but it was like eating a live squid, squelchy and wriggling. He felt one of his rotten teeth break away and catch in the back of his throat. He bit down harder and met the solid bar of bone. He could feel slivers of meat catching in his wind-pipe as he glugged on the flesh. He coughed. The master patted his back and he spluttered, coughed up the slivers. One caught. No! His stomach squeezed tighter than he’d have thought possible, becoming a knot in his guts, pulling at his whole body. Then he opened his mouth and acidic, hot liquid spilled out along with his half-chewed chicken.
He slumped down against the table.
“Well Servus, it seems you’re not hungry at all. Are you?”
“No master! No! Not hungry at all!”
“But you must be thirsty?”
“No master…please…I don’t need anything master!”
“Don’t be silly, Servus! You must have some wine!” He placed the decanter in Servus’s hand. “Go and make yourself drunk.”
“Yes master! Thank you master! The drink makes the voices quiet!” He scampered away, more ape-like than anything, clutching the silver decanter to his chest. He glimpsed the red woman dabbing at her eyes, looking away. Was she weeping? Could any creature weep for me?
When he was out of the room he started to drink. The alcohol drowned his sense of feeling until there was nothing but the mechanical expansion and contraction of his throat. He wove and slipped and tripped like a madman through the castle halls, trailing red splashes and washing wine down his throat. Master is cruel. Master is evil. Master will always have his way. You can never escape. The world spun and he felt as though he was the central line around which everything turned. He remembered the time he’d first asked his master why the stars rotated—how was this possible if the world was flat?
Stupid, stupid Servus. The world is round…
He came to lying on his belly, hot alcohol burning his throat as if he’d swallowed a poisonous reptile live. Like the poor worm you are.
When the master found him, Servus was muttering happily to himself.
“Four little goblins all in a tree…Teeheehee… Five goblins in a tree, Freefreefree…”
“Poor Servus. Look at the state you’re in now! It was wrong of me to give you so much to drink, wasn’t it?”
How could even kind words sound so cold? Like barbs for catching fish. That’s all Servus was—a fish to be caught and let free, caught and let free over and over. “I’ll make you a tea to soothe you. I will labour with my own hands to make you better.” He leant closer. Servus could not look up: only see the dark booted foot by his head, like the pillars from Stonehenge they said were carried by the devil. He heard the next words so close by he almost imagined his master’s lips brushed his ear. “How kind is your master?”
“So kind! So kind!” he drooled. “So kind!”
He blacked out.
Teeth flashed through his dreams. Wicked teeth. Biting. Always biting.
That was the question Servus wondered. Why? Why did the master do what he did to him? Why wouldn’t he let it end? Was it pleasure? Was it something Servus had done? It must be. Master could have as much pleasure as he wanted without torturing a wretch. Servus must have done something. But what? He couldn’t remember. His brain felt as though it was saturated with a slow obliterating poison, washing away everything. Every stain.
The nettle concoction he’d been given had soothed the ache in his stomach. After an hour, he’d felt stronger and lither than he had done in years. His stomach felt like a calmed lake after a violent storm. When he drank water, it stayed down.
That was after an hour. After two hours, he’d felt as though someone had taken a hammer and chisel to his scalp. Then blood burst from his nose. It hadn’t stopped running.
He knelt before his master, clutching his bleeding nose.
“Master, it hurts!”
“Oh, poor Servus, did I forget to mention the side effects?” He tutted, a tutor disappointed with his favourite student. “But it serves you right for drinking so much!” He sighed. “Well, no matter, it’s time for the dogs to be fed.”
“But master—the blood—it enrages them!” He blubbered like a babe in a thunderstorm, lips feeling heavy, limp.
“Feed the dogs Servus. You’ve had your share to eat, after all…”
Teeth. Wicked teeth. Biting. Always biting.
When he escaped the kennels the skin on his legs and arms had been shredded to the bone. He couldn’t take a single step without agony. A line of red followed him, like a dark slug’s trail. When he tried to turn the door handle, he realised a finger was missing. He slipped on the handle twice trying to turn it. Then he gave up and slumped down against the door.
Please don’t let him find me. Please let it end here. But he knew that was hopeless. Once Master Craven told him he’d been dead for four days and still he’d been able to bring him back. That’d been when his eyes started to go. And his legs had never regained their full strength. Why couldn’t he get to what was on the other side? He lay dozing. The sounds of the dog’s growling carried across the castle, setting his teeth afire. He blinked. Everything dimmed. Please sweet death.
SEERRRRCHHH.SEERRRCHHH.SEERRRRCH. His back dragging. Sky above, melting to gold and white lines: crossing like intersecting lightning bolts. The closest Servus would ever see to heaven.
He woke on a cold slab of stone.
He couldn’t hear anything. The hiss of the harsh winds was shut out. The dogs were silent, or else too far away. He was lying on the floor of the tower. Master’s tower. The stairs climbed up to his personal chambers. 1001 steps. He knew that because his master had made him clean all of them one after another.
Slowly, he clambered to his feet and climbed the stairs.
When he reached the top step, his knees gave way and he collapsed in front of a steel-shod oak door, quivering. The door swung open.
“Servus! You’re just in time.”
Hands too strong to be human pulled him to his feet and pushed him into the glorious bedchamber. A four poster bed stood in the corner. The woman in red was chained to one of the posts. Naked. Servus’s eyes bulged as they swarmed over the white curves. Flesh. So much flesh. All perfectly shaped. Not like me. He felt his legs trembled again and his heart started tapping on the inside of chest, like a hammer on a nail.
“Do you like her, Servus?” the master whispered in his ear.
“She is…very beautiful, m-m-m-m-master.”
“But do you like her Servus?”
He saw the trap, but what he could he do?
“No, master…no…I-I prefer the dirt master…the beetles, the crawling things…”
“Come now, Servus. How do you think that makes her feel?”
“Well… master… poor Servus cannot help what he likes…”
“Servus…” A note of warning like a whetstone shrieking on a blade.
“Yes I do, I do like her Master!”
“Good,” he said. “Do you want to put something in her, Servus?”
His groin flushed with warmth, a sensation as alien to him as an embrace. He licked his lips. He did. Of course he did. His master hadn’t yet cut his cock off. But perhaps that was part of the torture?
“Well, take this then.”
Servus felt something cold and hard drop into his hands. He looked down and saw it was a crossbow. Something inside. That was just like his master: to play with words as much as with feeling. Unblinking, Servus raised the weapon and aimed it straight at the woman. She started to sob. Her mouth was gagged with a cloth so she couldn’t make any sound other than a muffled yelp. She struggled against her bonds. Her breasts flapped about—somehow it was all more arousing. He couldn’t hold the weapon straight—the point of the bolt veered as though he was the drunken captain of a wayward ship. Pull the trigger. It’s what master wants. Pull the trigger and kill her. At least you’ll make it quick. Better than dogs.
Yet there was something else creeping at the back of his mind, like an old song, although Servus had only heard music once or twice in his life when he stole into town on one of his master’s twisted errands. This can kill. It can take a life. Even his. It was the most powerful Master Craven had ever allowed him to feel.
He turned around and stepped back, aiming the crossbow for his master’s chest. The dark veil hid all traces of surprise. He watched the hands. They hung motionless like hung corpses. But nothing stays dead. Not the dogs. Not the voices. Not me. Not anything.
“Servus, what are you doing?”
He shivered and held the crossbow a little tighter.
“Why can’t we let her go, master? Please. What has she done? Servus deserves his treatment but not her. Let her go, master.”
“Are you going to kill me? Are you going to hurt your kind master?”
He held up his hands as if asking for a dance. The hood was blank as the script which Servus could not read, unknowable. Why? Why? Why?
“But you hurt me master. You hurt me so much. The torture…master…the dogs…I was only trying to serve you.”
“And now you are betraying me. That hurts me, Servus.”
The voice darkened, like an overcast sky filling with heavy cloud. Servus flinched as though his master had unsheathed a blade, a blade with which he would start to draw bloody lines. He put his finger on the trigger. Do it. No more talking. Do it.
“Master, I don’t want to hurt you but…but…I can’t…I can’t…” He trembled. Tears ran down his face. His whole body shook as if he applied his whole weight to moving one finger that single inch.
Master Craven walked forward and took the crossbow off him, like a parent taking a dangerous toy out of a toddler’s hands. Servus shook and crumpled backwards, shrivelling like years had fallen on him.
“Have you finished, Servus?”
“Don’t you understand?’ Master Craven leant down and put a dark hand on his shoulder. “I love you Servus. Despite all your ignorance and foolishness and treachery, I love you.” He straightened. “But you’ve let me down badly today,” he muttered, almost like an afterthought. “Very badly.”
He raised the crossbow and pulled the trigger, still keeping his eyes fixed on Servus. The red woman gargled and slumped against the bed-post, chin touching her chest. The bolt passed clean through her temple and out the other. Like a skewer of meat.
“Take her down, Servus.”
Servus waddled over to the corpse and untied it, avoiding looking into the blank, still eyes.
“What do you want me to do with her, master?”
He couldn’t see anything, but he sensed a smile.
“Why, Servus, I would have thought it obvious?” He heard a tongue flick across lips. “Feed the dogs.”
Servus carried the body down to the kennels. He stood on the platform and looked down into the arena of the dogs. He listened to their growls and roars, like seething waves. He held the dead woman in his arms and stared at the mouths so full of slaver and teeth. Was there any way out of this place? This hell. That was one word he did know. Hell. If only he had someone else.
He threw down the woman into the arena and the dogs seized on her naked body, tearing at it with rending snapping bites. He looked at the ripping red meat – just like the shanks of chicken and pig he carried down before. There’s nothing that tells us apart to them. He blinked. An idea had slotted into place like a dreadful nail screwed into the wall. It’s dangerous. So, so dangerous…master will punish you…master will make it worse than ever!
But he couldn’t imagine worse.
He threw down his clothes into the pit. They were stained with his own blood. He stripped until he was naked. The dogs tore at the clothes with foaming mouths. Servus threw back his head and screamed. He screamed as loud as he could, but on the last cut off mid scream.
Then he stumbled for the gate—he couldn’t run. Inside his head the taunting words of his master ran like a motto. You thought you were so clever, didn’t you Servus? You thought you could deceive me? Stupid, stupid Servus! No slave fools their master!
But he kept limping on. The portcullis hovered suspended like the blade of a guillotine. Would his master drop it down to trap him? If he does I shall throw myself on the floor so it cuts me in half. He was almost at the gate now. Almost free. He offered a bleak prayer.
Please, let it be answered.
Joseph Sale is a writer, poet, and musician from Bournemouth. He studied English with Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham where he obtained a first-class honours degree.
His work has previously been published in Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex and Edgar Allan Poet Journal 2#, and his debut horror novel The Darkest Touch was published in April 2014 by Dark Hall Press. When he’s not frantically typing, he loves poking people with pointy swords (fencing).