The Barrow Men
A short story by Adam Watts
The lights of Tahmoor, City of Emeralds, shone like a patch of stars fallen out of the sky. They were bright, these lights, and warm, despite the cool sea air. Each and every one marked a busy path, even at this late hour. Walk a few miles out among the barrow mounds, though, and all became silent and dark. It had been a tradition in the city, many years ago, to have great heaps of earth raised up over the final resting place of those who had died, hills of dirt and stone that now stood like judgmental sentinels overlooking their descendents in the decadent town below. Take a wrong turn out the north gate and you would find the mounds everywhere, marking piles of ancient bones. When seen from a distance it looked like the earth had caught some disfiguring disease.
There were two men walking among the barrow mounds late at night. It would be convenient to describe them differently—one tall, the other short, or one thin, and the other fat—but, alas, such description would not be truthful. They looked as though they could have been brothers, though they were in no way related. They both had the same tanned, almost swarthy skin, the same close-cropped dark hair, and the same sharply-defined facial structure. One had blue eyes, and one had blue-green. The blue-eyed man had remembered to shave that morning, while the other had not. These were the only features setting them apart, aside from what they were carrying.
“I don’t like this place,” said the one with blue eyes, shifting the rolled carpet that lay across his shoulders.
“No one does, I expect,” said the other, not really paying attention to his colleague. He waved his lantern about as he peered into the shadows, as though that would give him a better look at what was there. The shovel was heavy against his shoulder. It would be good to finally have a place to set it down.
“They say the dead come out of the barrows sometimes,” the blue-eyed man muttered, watching the shadows. “The grave-keepers come through and find crypt doors broken from the inside, or holes where something dug itself out of the ground.”
“Ranj, have I ever told you you’re a superstitious fool?” said the other man absently.
“Don’t mock me, Thomas!” said Ranj. “I know what I’m talking about!”
Thomas shook his head. “Sure you do. And do you leave milk and honey out to distract the house goblins while you sleep, too? Or are the undead a greater threat than all the other nonexistent myths?”
It was hard to tell whether Ranj was red in the face from the effort of carrying his burden or from Thomas’ words. “Laugh all you want,” he said, “but someday you’ll look down and find that fairies have stolen your feet. I’ll have a good laugh then, let me tell you.”
Thomas snorted. “I’ll not even ask what might cause that one.”
There was a lone man walking among the barrow mounds, not far behind Ranj and Thomas. Or, rather, it was an individual who it is convenient to describe as a man. His form was certainly human enough, and his thoughts sometimes flowed in a similar manner to that of humanity, but his body was a thing of gears and oil rather than flesh and blood. His face was a metal plate, worn down by time, its only ornamentation a pair of slits in the façade that might, if one were feeling charitable, be called eyes. A long flintlock rifle was slung over his shoulder and a long overcoat draped over his skeletal frame. He looked in every respect like the implacable hunter he was, with the exception of the cheerful, colorful feather from some tropical bird pinned to his beret.
The lone figure followed the bobbing light of a distant lantern, moving swiftly, carefully, and in well-oiled silence.
Thomas set the lantern down on a nearby rock. “This looks like a good place,” he said. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
“Why do we have to do this here?” demanded Ranj, dropping the carpet to the ground with a dull thud. “What’s wrong with the lime pits? They’ve worked well enough before.”
“Some Chancery man has been watching them since last Thursday,” said Thomas, planting the shovel in the dirt. “Best we not be seen around there for a while.”
“So…we could put some rocks in the bag and drop it in the bay…”
“No.” Thomas cut Ranj off with an air of finality. “Stop worrying, man. Broken crypts and turned earth? I’d say that’s more a sign of people like us than the dead rising. We’re the only ghouls around here.” He gestured to the shovel. “Start digging.”
“What?” Ranj switched from afraid of the dark to afraid of work in less time than it takes to say it. “I carried the damn thing all the way out here. You dig the hole.”
“I’ll be keeping watch,” said Thomas, “because I don’t trust you not to shoot at every shadow you see.”
Ranj tried to form a coherent reply, but if he were being honest with himself he couldn’t really fault Thomas’ logic.
“There you go,” Thomas laughed as Ranj grabbed the shovel.
There are some things in the night that only the most alert of watchmen would notice. Thomas was not the most alert of watchmen, paying more attention to Ranj’s digging than he was to the darkness around them. He did not expect that anyone would find them. Not here.
From deep in the darkest shadows of the barrow mounds the man made of metal watched them both. His iron skin was rough and dull, his coat blackened cloth. No gleam betrayed him, and the silence of the graves was louder than he was. Thomas’ eyes passed over the shadows where he lurked more than once, never pausing, never noticing.
“How deep do you want this?” asked Ranj, leaning on the shovel.
“I’d like it to be six feet,” said Thomas, glancing at the hole, “but that ought to do. Come on, let’s get him out.”
The two men hefted the rolled carpet that Ranj had carried through the barrow mounds, and unrolled it. From its folds fell a body, pale and bloodless, of a man who had been alive yesterday.
They looked down into the makeshift grave, at the tangled limbs and ungainly sprawl of the corpse.
“I feel we ought to say something,” said Ranj.
Thomas looked at Ranj. Ranj looked at Thomas. Thomas rolled his eyes and cleared his throat.
“Here lies Adler Tekomas,” he said. “He was a good man in life, kind to children, and honest. Dependable. You could always rely on old Adler. And then he tried to rat us out, the son of a bitch, and now here he lies with the worms and the earth. May he burn in Hell.”
The two men held a brief moment of silence.
“Beautiful words,” said Ranj.
“Thank you,” said Thomas modestly. “Now fill it back in.”
“What? Dammit Thomas, I dug the hole! You fill it in.”
“I told you, I’m keeping—uh.” He stopped for the briefest of moments. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” asked Ranj, but Thomas was already turning away, pulling a flintlock pistol out of his belt.
“I thought I heard something,” he said, hand white on the gun.
“It’s ghouls,” said Ranj immediately. “I told you—wait, no, you’re just trying to get out of filling it back in.”
“Don’t be daft,” said Thomas. “I heard something.”
“Don’t mock—” Ranj began, and then everything happened at once. The dark, thin figure stepped out of the shadows, rifle in its hands. Thomas spun, pistol raised, and pulled the trigger. There was a blast of sound, the stench of black powder, and, just for an instant, the sound of metal on metal—ping! And then, just as deafening, came the answering shot, a burst of fire and smoke from the metal man’s gun, leaving Thomas gasping, more in surprise than in pain. Before Ranj even had time to think Thomas was dead on the ground and the thin man of metal was advancing, slinging the rifle across his back and drawing a sword. Ranj could not move. He tried with all his might to run, but his feet would not obey him. He had always known that the dead would rise from the barrow mounds. He had taken that as a fact and believed it like other people believed that the sun would rise in the morning, but he had not thought it would be like this, not with his friend dead before him and this gaunt figure striding forward with a sword in its hand and with the smell of gunpowder everywhere he turned. He clutched the shovel in both hands as though it were some sort of protective charm. He didn’t remember picking it up again.
“You are Ranj Chandler?” said the metal man, in a voice like rust. “You are under arrest for the murder of—”
Ranj screamed at the sound—his name in the mouth of this demon!—and swung the shovel with all his might against the head of the iron creature. There was a clang, the haft of the shovel broke with a crack, and the metal man went down without a word. Ranj turned and ran, still clutching the broken shovel, gasping for air, thinking at every step that he could feel the dead hands clutching his legs as they burst from the ground. He ran, not caring where, deep into the barrow mounds, and was never seen again by any in the City of Emeralds.
Eventually, the metal man got back to his feet. He looked around, at the dead man on the ground and the dead man in the hole and the tracks of the fleeing man. When he moved his head now there was a soft grinding noise, like gears sliding against each other. He’d have to have that looked at. He sighed, or tried to. It came out sounding like sand on a rusty knife.
“Why do they always try to run?” he asked the barrow mounds, and received no reply. He poked around in the dirt until he found his sword, thinking all the while, trying to figure out where the fugitive would run. He would find Ranj, of that he was certain. Everyone knew that Tracker Kesp always found his prey. Why a man would run, knowing who he was running from, was beyond his comprehension.
Kesp shrugged. He suspected that some things about people would always be a mystery to him, no matter how well he otherwise understood them. He sheathed his sword, adjusted his coat, found his beret and put it back on, and set off after Ranj Chandler, just another shadowy figure in a night where shadows were not so uncommon.
The lights of the City of Emeralds burned still, never resting, as they did every night; but a few miles away, among the barrow mounds, the only light was that of a feeble lantern, and the silence was that of the grave.