Aug. 28, 2015
(Note: Made a couple small changes from the original post)
"We're mostly interested in the dead," said the tall man. "But maybe you will be useful. Step into the light."
I slid my foot into the flickering circle of light thrown off by the lantern, dropping my eyes as I pulled myself into the glow. I could feel his eyes on me. And I glanced up, and they were pale, the color of skim milk with black pupils that stood out in stark contrast. He was so tall that his hat brushed the curved ceiling and he had to hunch slightly. The seconds slipped by and I could feel the blood crawling in my cheeks - I disliked being looked at. It was worse when I was caught, like a little mouse.
The woman behind him continued her work, laying out all manner of tools on the velvet cloth. Small knives, tubing, pumps, saws and gew-gaws I didn't recognize.
Usually the catacombs were empty, and made for a great place to sleep in the winter. Never too cold, never too hot. The guards didn't come down much. The bodies made them nervous. But this city had the best caretakers in land, and there was little to fear from the dead.
But I had forgotten it was execution day.
"Hector, we need to get working. The sun sets in two hours," said the woman.
"I am aware of the time, Olivia," he said, not breaking his gaze with me. "You will help us prepare their rest."
I saw the woman straighten slightly, and she gave me a look that I couldn't read. Surprise, maybe. Or relief.
"What do I do?" I asked, peering at the line of dead people laid out on slabs.
"Come," said the woman, Olivia. She reached out her hand, and after a moment's hesitation I reached back. She took my hand by the wrist and pulled me to her side. She smelled like lavender. She took my lank blonde hair in both of her hands, and twisted it into a ragged bun, tying it off with a cord she had hidden under her sleeve.
"You don't want anything to get in your hair," she said, and smiled, even as my eyes widened. Our of her pocket she produced a small jar, and when she opened it I could smell lavender and a strong whiff of camphor. She dipped a finger and put a dollop under my nose, making sure some entered my nostrils. My eyes watered.
"It will help with some of the smells. Though these are fresh, you are a green stick - and even though I'm old, I remember being the green stick. Hector doesn't even use it any more, but I do," she said, placing a smear under her own nose.
Olivia began explaining the instruments and their grim uses. Hector had already begun undressing the first one. He gestured for me to help. I tugged off the worn-out boots, but hesitated when he gestured for me to take the pants.
"I'll see his man-things," I whispered.
"He won't know the difference, and will have more dignity if you help us do this than if you quibble like a child, girl. Remove his trousers," he said.
Blushing furiously, I undid the belt and began to try to remove the pants. Which was harder than I thought when the man in question was stiff as stone. Olivia helped prop up his back so I could slide them under his bum, and then it became as easy as pulling them off his legs. I peeked at his nethers, but looked away when I saw Olivia grin at me.
"They're just boxes now, Green Stick. We just put the boxes in other boxes - like a puzzle," she said.
Once all were stripped the real work began. Mostly Hector and Olivia worked in silent concert. Inserting a needle into the arms and pumping out the blood into a drain in the floor. Other fluids were pumped in.
"Removing the blood will keep most resting," she explained. "But sometimes it matters not. And with murderers and rapists even less so."
Hector sliced open the chest of a great bear of a man, his long and slender fingers holding the knife with a gentle grip, skillfully slicing through layers of fat and tissue with practiced ease. He removed the insides, popping them into jars of liquid. Olivia named each of the things he removed: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys. Olivia helped with the ropes of intestines and even with the ointment beneath my nose I was gagging from the smell."
"If you must vomit, the drain is the best place," said Hector.
Once the guts were sealed away they sawed off the head and placed it at the feet. A stake of ashwood was driven into the corpses chest. Hector had me bind and stake the ankles, wet leather was wrapped and knotted around the legs, then a smaller ash stake was shoved behind the tendons.
"This prevents them from walking," said Olivia. "The one in the chest calms their anger and stills their limbs. Most of the time."
By the time we had gotten to the last corpse it had already begun to rise. Its eyes were bright red, and its voice was gurgling groan.
Olivia grabbed the beast by the forehead, pushing it down on the slab. I moved forward to help, she grinned at me again. This time I grinned back. Hector sawed through the neck and placed the gnashing skull at the feet. Once the beast was staked, the limbs stopped thrashing and the rest of the job became considerably easier. Soon his innards were jarred, and all it could do was gnash its teeth at the air. Eventually it got tired of even doing that and closed his red eyes.
"Hector was right about you," she said, wiping her hands clean on a towel. "I wasn't sure. But you did well, Green Stick."
"Indeed," said Hector, but a small smile curved his lips. "Do you still wish to sleep with the bones, or would you like to come to the our hall?"
Olivia handed me the towel and I had to dry my eyes. It felt like coming home.