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Authors: D. M. Cornish

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BOOK: Lamplighter
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A HORN-ED NICKER
For an agony of seconds there was a terrible stillness, the only sounds the mewling of a single mortally injured horse and Grindrod’s muttered encouragements to the prentices.
Rossamünd struggled to accept what he had just seen, he and his fellow lantern-sticks agog at the barely lit suggestion of wreckage and mutilation barely fifty yards away among the trees.
“Ground crooks and present arms!” Lamplighter-Sergeant Grindrod gruffed, rousing the prentice-lighters from their stunned dumbness. “Form two ranks for firing by quarto, prentices in front, lampsmen at back! Master Come-lately, stand to our right with yer potives. Show yer flints bravely, lads!”
Driving their fodicars into the roadside to make a hedge of steel, the prentice-watch formed up in two lines behind these, facing the carriage wreck. With the coldly lambent light of the lamp at their backs, the six other boys crouched at the front, the four men stood behind.
Putting himself to the side of this formation, Rossamünd gripped two scripts in a trembling hand, a double dose ready for throwing. One was a cloth salpert of Frazzard’s powder to stagger and blind; the other a fragile porcelain caste of loomblaze, a fiery doom. He desperately wished they had a leer with them to peer into the gathering dark and tell better where the monsters were.
Indistinctly lit at the edge of the great-lamp’s nimbus glow, great horn-ed shadows stirred and began to stalk about the partly smashed cabin of the coach.
“At least five of the baskets, and as big and cruel as ye never should hope to meet,” Lampsman Bellicos hissed in awe.
“Aye,” Grindrod growled, his voice all a-hush now. “I bain’t seen naught like ’em before. Have ye, Assimus?”
Lampsman Assimus grunted. “Where did they come from, I wonder?”
The lamplighter-sergeant’s pale eyes glittered. “We’ll have to work some pretty steps tonight if we’re going to preserve the lads.”
A murmur of dismay shuddered through the prentices.
Two or three of the huge, hunched shadows ripped and gnawed at the stricken horses. Others clawed at the broken carriage, trying to get to the tasty morsels within who, obviously still alive, could be heard crying out.Women’s voices.
“That changes things! Other lives are in the balance now, and protecting ’em is our duty,” Grindrod said firmly. “Ply your firelocks briskly, hit yer mark; a coward’s mother never weeps his end. Master Lately! Time for ye to produce the worst yer salt-bag has to offer.Ye must defend us as we reload, boy! Prentices! Present and level on that blighted slip jack stumbling there!”
One of the horn-ed nickers had appeared on the road. Its silhouette was clear against the pallid glimpse of sky showing where the Pettiwiggin entered the wood.
“Ranks to fire together in volley!” With a rattle of unison action, prentice and lighter leveled their fusils on this creature even as it became aware of them. At the muted metallic dicker of many cocking flints, it fixed them with a gleaming, cunning gaze that seemed to say,
You’re next . . .
Potives already in hand, Rossamünd adjusted his salumanticum so that it would not tangle a good throw.
“Stay to the line!” Grindrod continued, low and grim. “Reload handsomely if ye want to live—it may come to hand strokes soon enough, but I
will
see ye to yer billets safe tonight!”
Rossamünd’s throat gripped at his swallowing: to come to hand strokes—to fight hand to hand with a bogle—was to grapple with terror itself. Smaller, weaker-seeming bogles than these could make pie-mince of a large man. He knew what hand strokes would mean: gashing and iron-tasting terror. It was only barely learned duty that kept him to his place.
Grindrod raised his arm, the prelude to the order to fire, yet before he could complete the command a great churning disorientation tumbled over the prentice-watch.
Rossamünd reeled as the world was turned right ways wrong and outside in.
The prentice-watch fumbled their weapons and some cursed in fright.
“They’ve got a wit in there . . . ,” managed Lampsman Bellicos through spasming, grinding teeth.
“And a bad one too . . . ,” Puttinger wheezed.
Rossamünd had spent some time with a fulgar on the way to Winstermill all those weeks ago, and now here he was feeling the working of a wit.
So this is what it is to suffer their frission . . .
The sensation quickly passed, leaving a sick headachy funk.
The nicker on the road was gone.
There was a smarting flash from the ruined coach—some kind of illuminating potive that quickly became a glaring rose-colored flare lifted high by a small, slight figure. A woman was struggling from the wreck, dazzling the scene with a brilliant ruby light that stung the eyes. The monsters shied from that strange red glare, retreating into the darkness between tangled trunks.
“Ah! Bitterbright!” growled Lampsman Assimus, shielding his sight with an outstretched arm. “That’s a smart bit of skoldin’.”
“Aye,” Grindrod growled, “but wantonly witting and blinding us won’t help us help them. Make ready and keep a squint so ye can see into that blasted night.”
Amazed, struggling to see what was happening, Rossamünd squinted, his eyes watering in the quick, painful brilliance. Bitterbright was powerful chemistry that took great skill to keep burning, and amid the confusion he was desperate to see its maker.
Bold again, the monsters paced a careful circle about the woman, some of them showing as black shadows against the flare as they stalked between the calendars and the lamplighters, their feral stink wafting over the prentice-watch. The smallest nicker was at least seven foot, as far as Rossamünd could tell, the biggest maybe over nine. A-bristle with stiff fur, sharp and slender horns curving back wickedly over their long skulls, they swayed menacingly as they bobbed and lurched in complete and unnerving silence. Slowly the nickers arranged themselves with grim deliberation.
Lamplighter-Sergeant Grindrod kept his eye fixed on the monsters. “Level on that nearest brute.We’ll see if we can’t even odds a little.”
No sooner had he said this than a slight figure sprang out from the carriage, a girl in strange costume, long hair flailing as she leaped. An angry, frightened call followed her, something like “Threnody,
no
!” The girl came on, dancing toward a monster, clutching at her temple. Once more Rossamünd felt that weird and deeply unpleasant giddiness of frission contract in the middle of his head then quickly flex in the pit of his stomach. His vision failed briefly this time and he reeled, as did all those of the prentice-watch. Bellicos retched; Rossamünd’s fellow prentice Wrangle vomited and, finally overcome, three other boys collapsed.
Grindrod swore as he staggered. “Lackbrained wit! What’s she playing at?”
“They’re stinkin’calendars!” Rossamünd heard Assimus’ angry whisper.
Rossamünd had read of such as these.They were a society of women—lahzars, skolds, pistoleers and the rest—set to doing good, protecting the weak and pursuing other noble causes.
The agony rapidly passed, as it had before, leaving its aching in Rossamünd’s skull. Yet he kept enough of his senses to see that though his fellow lighters were reeling, the monsters were not suffering much at all.The striving of the long-haired calendar had done little to deter the nickers. She was not practiced enough at her witting—it was random, inept. And now the monsters pounced, the largest blocking Rossamünd’s view of her in its ravenous intent.
Again they felt the wit’s wild frission, driving every one of the prentice-watch still standing to his knees. One of the nickers fell too. With a weird shriek, two more oddly dressed figures pounced from the shattered wood and frame while a third, bearing the bitterbright, struggled after. By the swaying rose light the two dashed to the young wit’s defense, prancing and whirling, dancing about her as they began a mortal struggle with the horn-ed nickers, their hands trailing long, lacerating wires.The monsters shied and cast about wildly, raging with disturbing strangled yips as the figures harried and slit first at one then another, keeping them at bay, pirouetting clear of every swipe.
One of the dancers misstepped, and that was her end as the horn-ed nicker gripped and ripped and clawed her—an end more terrible yet than Licurius’ at the carving nails of the grinnlings. Bile bubbled up from his gullet as Rossamünd tried to conceive how a living person could so quickly be bent and rent to a meaningless mash. Not even the stoutest proofing could stop such elemental strength. Even as this woman was slain the other dancer became frantic and, with a grieving wail, danced madly about the killer of her sister, cutting at it over and over, slicing off one of its horns, severing a mangled arm, removing an ear. Another beast sprang from a thicket, snatched the flailing woman about her stomach and chewed its great fangs into her face.With a flash-and-bang that echoed through the spindly, spiny wood, someone still inside the cabin fired a pistola—a salinumbus by the flat, heavy slap of the discharge. Hit low with the shot, this ambuscading nicker tottered, dropping its maimed prey.Another thick pistol-crack and a glare of orange flickered about the head of the beast, followed quickly by boisterous crackling. Its head afire, the creature collapsed back with a strange, husky howling, tripping over its victims and falling to the earth. The glare of its burning added light to the furor.
As these things were happening, several nickers had closed with the long-haired wit, who cowered and sent out ineffectual flutterings of her witting powers. Even from where he stood, Rossamünd could feel threwd emanating from these monsters as the beasts sought to best their prey through anguish and mad terror alone.
His fellow prentices whimpered.
“Pernicious threwd!” cursed Assimus.
“Take your aim on that leftmost basket!” Grindrod cried.
The prentice-watch brought up their firelocks.
“Fire!”
With a sharp, rattling clatter the quarto fired, startling the horn-ed nickers, gun-smoke obscuring their view.
One of the monsters collapsed under many hits of musket ball and crumpled gasping to the verge. Sets of glimmering monster eyes—maybe four, maybe five—regarded the lighters malignantly.
“Reload! Reload!” Grindrod demanded, and the prentices hurried to comply.
The long-haired calendar sank to her knees.
The monsters looked to her again and closed for the slaying.
Yet the smallest calendar staggered in between. It was she who had set the bitterbright to burning and kept it bright for her sisters to see. She flung the glare at an encroaching nicker, the red glimmer dimming rapidly now that she no longer fed its chemistry. The beast recoiled as the potive struck and a smolder set in its fur, quickly turning to ruby flames that engulfed head and shoulders. Regardless, two others approached slavering noiselessly, tongues lolling and licking at the smell of blood and smoke.
By the light of the failing bitterbright Rossamünd could see that this brave woman wore the conical hat of a skold and white spoor lines down both sides of her face. A thick hackle of cream-colored fur wrapped about her neck and shoulders, and strange little wings protruded from her back. She looked fragile, vulnerable, doomed.
One set of glowing eyes, however, had stayed fixed on the prentices hurrying new rounds into their fusils. This nicker chose them as its next victims and pounced, taking five yards with each springing lope.
“By quarto!” Grindrod hollered.
The lantern-sticks struggled to get their weapons up in time as in five strides the beast was halfway toward them, foul breath steaming from its gnashing teeth.
Rossamünd lifted his arm ready to throw his chemistry.
“Level!”
The horn-ed terror arched itself as it ran at them, ready to pounce. Almost in unison the other nickers lashed at the calendars . . . and froze as if each was stricken. The monster rushing them toppled and skidded along the road in midstride.
“What the . . . !” Grindrod exclaimed.
“Saved,” whimpered Crofton Wheede.
“She’s a bane!” marveled Assimus. Both skold and wit, banes were rare and extraordinary.
Indeed, the calendar, though clearly struggling, was now touching her left temple, a gesture characteristic of a wit. The prentice-watch looked on in awe as, with a precise show of frightening potency, the woman caused the largest beast before her to writhe in paroxysms of agony while holding the other two frozen. So skilled was she that, unlike her long-haired compatriot, she sent no wild washings of frission to trouble the lampsmen and their charges. All Rossamünd could feel was a vague fluttering in his innards.
With a hoarse sound almost like a whinny, the monster bent on the lamplighters struggled to break free of the calendar’s invisible grip. It stumbled sideways, tried to turn and lunge at the quarto of the prentice-watch, their weapons still leveled and ready.
BOOK: Lamplighter
2.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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