Creatures - Story 2 - Thunder in Old Kilpatrick by Gustavo Bondoni

This story was originally published in Undead and Unbound in August 2013.

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The skies came alive with a drone like a disturbed beehive and Richard glanced up at the heavens.

But only for a moment. There were more pressing things occupying his attention on Earth, wonderful things that he’d never imagined possible back in boring old London. Fluttering on the ground in front of him was a bird, red-headed and angry, dragging a broken wing through the heather. 

Richard wondered what to do with it. There was no question of just letting it be, not after he’d spent all afternoon trying to bring one down, but he was torn between the sheer delight of tormenting it, taking revenge on all of taunting, elusive bird-kind, or of nursing it back to health and having it for a pet. These weighty meditations were the reason that Old Tom managed to sneak up on him.

“I see you’ve got your first grouse, laddie.”

“A grouse?” He’d heard some of the men talking about grouses, and sometimes they even went out to hunt them. The guns they carried were so big that Richard had always imagined that a grouse would be something huge, with hide, tusks and a temper to match. The thing wriggling forlornly on the ground certainly didn’t look the part.

Old Tom nodded towards the bird. “They’re hard to bring down, especially with a sling. You’ve the makings of a hunter, boy.” The groundskeeper’s craggy face never showed any emotion, but his voice seemed to radiate approval. “But stones won’t save you if Hannah finds you out here. The wireless says that the sirens have gone, over in Clydebank, and she’s ordered everyone into the cellar.”

“The sirens are going all the time. We’re too far away for it to matter,” Richard replied, half-mutinous. He knew that Old Tom wouldn’t report his words, but there was always the chance that Hannah would appear from out of the underbrush. The plump, grandmotherly woman was lightning-fast with a switch. “And I’ll tell her I ran all the way back, but I was too far away.”

The old man pursed his lips to speak, but suddenly stopped and looked into the air. Richard realized that the drone had grown louder. But he still didn’t worry. It was probably just an RAF defender, reaching the scene of the bombing too late to be of any use.

A rough, calloused hand pressed into Richard’s shoulder. “Get down, lad!”

Tom pushed him down into the heather, right beside the struggling bird, and lay on top of him. Or at least it felt that way to Richard. Before he’d finished falling, he felt the Earth around him shake. Then he was deafened by a sound of thunder and thrown some meters clear. He hit the ground hard, and didn’t hear the second bomb.


***

The pain in Richard’s hand became more and more urgent, and he came back to his senses with a gasp. A voice, shouting in a closed, unintelligible Scottish brogue, sounded distantly through the ringing in his ears. He turned his head and saw Old Tom brandishing a thick branch in one hand. The groundskeeper’s other arm hung, bloody and limp, at his side.

At first, Richard wondered whether the blast that had thrown them across the moor had also finally driven the old man insane. The servants muttered about Tom’s lonely life and bleak disposition all the time, not caring that the young master might hear. Now, though, the man seemed to be incoherent, bracing for an attack.

The doubts were short-lived. A lumbering form, wearing rags and some rusted metallic fabric, came into view. The strange figure uttered a low moan, a sound that—even through the buzzing in Richard’s ears—felt like the lament of a lost soul. He paused in front of the groundskeeper, and then lowered a shoulder and advanced.

Tom made a valiant effort to stop him, advancing grimly and breaking the branch—a dry, infirm weapon—over the other man’s head.

The blow was completely ignored, and the second man, moaning continuously, struck once, with its hand, and sent Tom head over heels to the ground. Then he waited, as if to see what the groundskeeper would do next, until he was satisfied that his opponent was not going to move again.

With slow, deliberate motions, the man turned to where Richard was lying. The boy felt the fear rushing into his gut and tried to stand, tried to run. But it was impossible. His balance abandoned him, and he stumbled onto the floor, able only to lie and watch as the figure of Tom’s assailant advanced.

The other man bent and picked Richard up by the shirt. The scent coming off of him was of earth and mold. The man pulled him up to face him, and Richard nearly fainted when he saw the eyes; they were white, milky, the eyes of a blind man. The man’s skin was grey—almost white—and there was an open cut running across the length of his forehead, but the open flap of skin showed no blood, just more white-grey.

Richard opened his mouth, but the scream came through his deafened ears as a pitiful whine. The man held his gaze for just another second before dismissively tossing the boy to the ground. When Richard’s head hit, the darkness descended once again.


***

The next time Richard opened his eyes, he found himself in bed. He was in a wood-paneled room, with sunlight streaming through a window. A glass of water sat on a tray beside the bed.

So, it was all a dream, he thought sleepily, and decided to go out to see what delights the moors held in store for him.

He never managed it. As he attempted to sit up, a strange bundle around his chest impeded his progress, and it was a good thing, too. Pain shot up from his ribs, and he fell back to the bed with a gasp.

“Richard! What do you think you’re doing, young man?” Hannah entered the room, her dark blue uniform immediately filling it, leaving little room for anything else. Hannah was supposedly head of the household staff—not quite a housekeeper, not quite a member of the family—but, in reality, she ran the house with an iron fist, and anyone who wasn’t an adult member of the gentry would do as she ordered or feel the sharp sting of her tongue. Richard thought there must be a bit of bear in her makeup. “Near broken in half by the bombs, and trying to get out of bed without a by-your-leave. I’ll not have it.”

He nodded dumbly, as was his custom whenever she asked him a question, but the tactic—usually infallible—was wasted on her.

“Now tell me how you’re feeling. Those ribs all right? Doctor said you’d be feeling the break for a few weeks. No tree-climbing for you, lad.”

“Break?” Richard said. He was relieved to find that speech was possible, and that the pain had subsided.

“Broke a rib, maybe two. I’m surprised it wasn’t more, fool lad, playing out on the moors in the middle of a German attack. How many times have I told you to get inside when the alarms sound? The cellar is the only place to be in a raid. But do you listen? No. No one ever listens to me.”

That was so ridiculously untrue that Richard nearly interrupted her, but caught himself in time. Even so, it was unlikely that Hannah would have paid him the least attention. She had a full head of steam.

“And that old man is the worst of the lot. Just because the master is fond of grouse hunting and he’s the only one who can keep his grouse moors clear, he thinks he’s above the law. Well, you see where it got him?” She paused to give Richard a questioning glare, to which the boy could only give a confused look in response. “It nearly cost him an arm—and it did cost him his sanity, not that there was much of it to begin with. Do you know what he’s been saying?” This time she didn’t stop to ask for Richard’s opinion, she just went on. “He’s been saying there’s a wight loose on the moors. That’s Old Tom for you. He’d never be content to be bombed by the Germans. No, he has to bring ghouls and ghosts into his story as well.”

Hannah sighed in disgust and left, muttering something about getting the young fool something to eat, if the old fool had left anything at all. Richard ignored her completely.

He was thinking about a wight.


***

The next few days were torture. Even though he hardly felt any pain, Richard was forced to stay in bed, under strict guard and the threat of lost privileges, as life went on around him. That, in itself, would have been enough to make him chafe. Who knew how long the war would last, how long the German bombs in London would allow him to remain out there in the Scottish countryside? His freedom from the grey limitations of life as the son of a wealthy city merchant might come to an end at any time.

But this was not the main reason for Richard’s restlessness. There was a darkness in the house that made the weeks before—when German air raids were a daily occurrence—seem like a light-hearted time of happiness. Maids, whispering as they approached, would immediately fall silent when they entered his room to clean or to leave his meals on the bedside table. Even Hannah, forbidding as she was, seemed to be showing chinks in her armor. Once, during a particularly windy day, a sudden gust closed one of the room’s shutters with a loud bang, causing Hannah to start and drop a tray complete with Richard’s breakfast. The woman had tried to hide her fear under a veneer of anger, but her face had remained white as a sheet for the rest of the day—and she’d ordered all the shutters on the ground floor to be closed as soon as dusk began to fall.

Frustration mounted as the days went by and no one gave him any indication of what was going on. Day after day he suffered until, one afternoon, bored of the illustrated books that had kept him sane to that point, Richard stole out of bed. He reasoned that, if discovered, he would simply say that he was on the way to the restroom—his only permitted excursion—and hadn’t told anyone in order to avoid being a nuisance.

The door of his room was about halfway down the hall on the first floor of the house. Richard made his way silently down the corridor, towards the flight of stairs leading into the entrance hall. He stopped dead. Below him, two of the maids were in earnest conversation.

“They say the wight’s not been seen for two days,” one said. She was the scullery maid, married to a clerk in town, so she was the source of any and all information in the house.

“Must be hiding.”

“No, they say wights don’t know how to hide. They’re just dead flesh, and they have to keep moving. They have unfinished business, that’s why they can’t really die.”

“But this one was from years and years ago. How come it’s just come out now?”

“Old Tom says that they must have buried it under tons of stone, and that the bombs set it free.”

“Pshaw. Old Tom ain’t right in the head since he lost ‘is arm. Anyhow, if the wight’s gone, the army probably got it.”

“No. You can’t kill a wight with guns. It can’t rest until it does what it has to do. That’s what I told Emma when she said that it had probably thrown itself into the sea. I told her that wights have to do what they have to do. It’s silly to think they’d go throwing themselves into the sea.”

“Why not. Must be an awful way to live, being a wight.”

Richard knew these two would not give him any more useful information. They knew less about the monster than he did. Just from looking into its dead eyes for that single instant, he could have told them beyond any doubt that the wight was still out there somewhere. The mere suggestion of its throwing itself into the sea was ridiculous. He moved back to his room, undiscovered.


***

It took the full force of the doctor’s command—and Richard managed to overhear the phrase: “I don’t care if the armies of Hell itself are out on those moors. The boy needs to be allowed to recover in the fresh air.”—for Richard’s personal Cerberus to allow him freedom.

At first, the command was taken literally, with supervised strolls along the terrace being deemed sufficient contact with the elements to be going with. But even Hannah quickly realized that this was impracticable. People busy making certain he wasn’t being attacked by ancient monsters were often needed in the kitchen or elsewhere. And the fact that they avoided any mention of it was even worse. They pretended to be concerned that he might fall, or that he would move in the wrong direction and hurt himself. Richard fantasized about asking the scullery maid that was with him that day what, exactly, she would do if the wight attacked them.

He kept silent, and on the third day they simply left him to his own devices.

Richard knew that there was a fine line between freedom and obedience that had to be observed. If he disappeared into the moors for too long, Hannah would cause his freedom to end in a complete way—and besides, he still wasn’t in any condition to be overly frolicsome. But there was one thing he had to do, despite the darkness of the day, and the fog that hadn’t quite burned away even though it was nearly noon.

The place where the German plane had dropped the bombs was about half a mile away, just beyond one of the small hills that dotted the estate.

The wight was sitting in the shadows of the crater. It looked up as he approached, and Richard was again surprised by the lack of life in its eyes. He knew what people were saying about it, knew that it was supposed to be the walking dead, supposed to be able to tear strong men apart without even making much of an effort, but he felt no fear. He’d moved on, and was no longer the shell-shocked bomb victim the wight had encountered previously. Even injured, Richard knew he could run faster than it could stumble after him.

They studied each other in silence for a moment. The wight’s dead eyes seemed to have grown glassier since they’d last met, but other than that, it didn’t seem to be the worse for wear. It was still wearing the rust-colored shirt whose unused hood fell behind the creature’s head. Now that Richard had time to observe more carefully, he saw that the shirt reached its knees, and was held in place at the waist by a rotted belt which couldn’t possibly hold out much longer. The cloth rags which it had been wearing over the shirt on their first encounter were gone.

Somehow, this creature, this dead man from another age, looked perfectly at home standing in a bomb crater in the gloom of the overcast moor. It looked natural, making Richard feel like he was the otherworldly intruder.

Without warning, it emitted the moan again. It wasn’t a loud sound, but it cut straight to the boy’s soul, passing through his physical body as if it were made of spider silk. Richard nearly turned and ran, but held his position until the wailing stopped and they stood facing each other again, with Richard feeling just slightly wave-tossed.

The wight clearly didn’t see him as a threat. Whether something had changed since their last encounter, or whether it simply remembered the ease with which it had handled him, Richard had no way of knowing. But the creature simply turned, without so much as a shrug, and began methodically lifting stones that it found in the scarred earth where the German bombs had fallen. There seemed to be no point to what it was doing—every rock it took into its arms was then dropped back into a seemingly random place as it picked up another. It wasn’t piling them up, nor was it organizing them in any way. It didn’t even seem to know which ones it had already discarded. In the ten minutes that Richard watched it work, he saw the wight pick up one particular stone no less than eight times before tossing it back to the ground.

Richard took two steps forward, trying to get a closer look at what was happening, but suddenly he heard a familiar drone, high in the skies.

He didn’t stop to think that it might just be an RAF patrol, he didn’t stop to hear if the sirens were going. He just ran as quickly as his battered body could take him for the imaginary safety of the house.

Richard only turned back once, when the wailing of the wight hit him from behind. He turned to see it waving its arms frantically at some unseen enemy from above, as if it were being attacked by bees.

Then he turned back to the house and ran from the sound of the airplanes.


***

The raids continued, day and night, for two days. This time, it was no incidental thing, bombers dropping a load or two on their way back to Germany. This time, the target was Clydebank, and Richard could hear the distant rumbling whenever he left the bunker. They were tense times—but all of them knew, at least deep within themselves—that the shelter would protect them. It might have been a false belief, or even completely mistaken, but it kept them from going mad. And the thunder from the bombs never came too close again.

On the third day, the bombing stopped, and thunder of a different kind, full of blowing gales and rattling windows, took over the land. Richard was confined to the house for yet another spell. By the time the storm blew over, he was nearly completely recovered, and fit to burst from the combined effects of cabin fever and the secret he’d managed to keep to himself in the shelter. As soon as it dawned sunny, he was off into the moors.

The wight hadn’t gone far. It was standing nearly in the same place as he had left it, almost as though it hadn’t moved.

But it was clear that it must have. The place where the bombs had fallen had been churned into a muddy mass, of deep footprints and the wight itself had half-dried clods sticking to it as high as its knees.

And it had found a sword.

Well, perhaps the word “sword” was a bit generous for the rusted piece of metal it held in one hand and whose edge lay on one shoulder, but it was clear from looking at the wight that the undead creature, at least, felt the sword was no less than Excalibur. It seemed to stand taller, prouder, and with a sense of calm that hadn’t been present in their earlier encounters filled the moor.

It watched Richard approach but made no move towards him. When it was clear that the boy would come no closer, the creature simply turned away, sending its gaze back up into the heavens. It seemed to be waiting for something, and its posture made it extremely clear that it was prepared to wait as long as necessary.

What exactly it was waiting for was more of a mystery.

Richard wondered whether it believed that the noisy, dangerous metal beasts that ringed the sky were dragons—or whether they were angels sent to take him to his promised land. One thing seemed certain: a dead creature from the deep past armed with a rusted sword was unlikely to understand the Luftwaffe. The boy took another step towards the wight. And then another. A third.

At the fourth, the wight turned its attention back to the ground and gave him a look that froze Richard in his tracks. It raised its sword—not at the boy, but at the sky, and grunted. Then it pointed at the countryside, indicating everything around them: the moors, the overcast sky and a distant copse of trees, and tried to speak. The sound that came out was completely impossible to understand, but the message was clear. What was out there belonged to the wight—and all challenges would be met by the sword, rusty or not.

Richard did not sleep well that night.


***

When Old Tom finally became ambulatory once again, Richard was certain the wight, still standing where he’d left it, would be discovered. But the groundskeeper seemed to have little inclination to leave the house, and spent his time drinking broth in the kitchen and telling the maids wilder and wilder tales of undead creatures that made Hitler’s armies seem like a thing to be laughed off.

Though the old man stayed away from the moors, Richard still kept him in his sights. He didn’t want to find that, in a careless moment, the groundskeeper would sneak up on him like he had that very first day. That would be a true catastrophe.

But Richard’s presence seemed to be discomfiting to everyone in the servant’s hall. Eyes shifted, and people found other things to do when he walked in. The pall seemed to grow and grow until, late one day, Old Tom, well into his drink, finally spluttered, “Don’t you follow me around all day, lad. T’ain’t my fault the Germans killed your parents in the last attack. Why if it hadn’t…”

But Richard heard no more. Now he understood the freedom he was given, understood why Hannah hadn’t even chided him when he’d returned late for dinner the night before. It was no comfort to him that he now owned the house and the surrounding countryside for miles around.

Blinded by tears, the boy ran off into the moor, and whether by design or by accident, he soon found himself face to face with the wight, just as night was falling. Overcome by tears, he had ignored both the sound of distant sirens and the commotion caused by Old Tom’s sudden outburst. It was only under the supremely sobering effect of that undead gaze that he realized what was going on around him.

The air-raid siren—a new one that had been installed following the bombing incident—could be clearly heard, its wail only slightly distorted by the distance. And, in sharp barks and cries, the shouts of the household calling his name.

He debated whether to return to the open arms of his own people or to stay there, alone on the moor, surrounded by nothing that was alive.

The memory of his servants’ betrayal, of their refusal to do what was right, made the decision for him. As night fell, he stood next to the wight, on its seemingly eternal vigil. He wondered what it was thinking about; he himself was wondering how long they’d known without telling him.

The darkness was soon complete. If he hadn’t known what the thing standing beside him actually was, he could have easily pretended that it was just a silent man. The shouts got nearer, and then father away as the household staff crisscrossed the moors in search of the wayward boy who was now their master. Richard wondered if he would have to wait to grow up before he could sack them all. He went back to gazing at the sky.

But suddenly, the sky was torn apart by a shrieking roar. Something enormous flew low, at almost unimaginable speed, and plowed into the moor in front of them, near enough to deafen Richard with its sound and near enough that he could feel the wind from its passage. It screeched and thumped its way along before stopping, about two hundred yards away from where Richard and the wight were standing.

It was impossible to see what it was until it caught on fire. A small blaze showed that the monster that had seemed so enormous while in the air, was actually the remains of a small fighter plane. One wing was gone, and the other was ablaze, but the plane was upright at the end of the furrow it had carved into the moor. Incredibly, Richard could see movement in the cockpit.

He followed the wight as it walked towards the wreck. When they had gone about halfway, the figure of a man dropped to the ground and crawled away from the burning fighter. Moments later, the pilot stumbled to his feet. The fire had grown large enough that the pilot could clearly see them—but it also allowed Richard to see the markings on the airplane’s tail. A black cross within a white cross, with a thinner black border. It was a marking that every schoolboy in Britain had been taught to recognize, and taught to hate.

“Luftwaffe!” Richard cried. The wight turned to look at him, dead eyes glazed, showing no curiosity. “He’s a German! Do something!” The wight didn’t move. “He’s here to invade. This is our country, and it’s my land! You can’t let him do that.”

The pilot came closer, fumbling with a pocket on a thick flight jacket. His face was covered by blood that oozed out of his leather helmet, but there was no mistaking the fear and desperation in the man’s eyes. A black pistol emerged, and was pointed at the wight, and the man said something which seemed to consist entirely of consonants and gutturals.

The sound of the man’s voice—or perhaps the language itself—seemed to move the ancient warrior. The wight suddenly launched itself at the aviator, still twenty yards away, in a stiff but effective run. It moaned, and held the sword aloft.

The pilot screamed and began to fire, emptying the magazine into a creature which had long since ceased to care about physical pain. The German’s eyes went wide as he watched it approach, and wider still when the wight buried two feet of rusted iron into his belly.

The German stayed upright, bleeding onto the moor, for a long time. Then, he crumpled. Richard joined the wight beside him, and they looked on the enemy’s face for a silent eternity.

Shouting from behind caused Richard to turn. What looked like the entire household staff was standing on a small rise just behind them, with a large oil lamp of a kind strictly forbidden by the blackout rules governing Blitz-era Britain. He could see horror in their expressions, and fear. Richard could almost read the treacherous thoughts behind those looks: the German might have been the enemy, but at least he’d been human. The wight…

The wight frightened them. Because it was implacable, and unholy. But to Richard it seemed that the undead frightened them because it was loyal as well. Loyal to a parcel of ground or to some ancient ideal, perhaps, but unquestionably loyal.

Not like them.

Richard turned back to the wight, who’d removed its sword from the fallen aviator and stood by his side. He looked straight into the undead eyes.

“Kill them all,” Richard said.

This time, the long-dead warrior moved to obey.


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Copyright Gustavo Bondoni 2013

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over two hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages, and is a winner in the National Space Society’s “Return to Luna” Contest and the Marooned Award for Flash Fiction (2008). His latest book is Ice Station: Death and he has also published The Malakiad (2018), Incursion (2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) along with an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.

Gustavo is a repeat author with Tell-Tale Press. His work is also available in the Fantasy Library and the Science Fiction Library

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