The rain was pouring when he saw the object, lashing down from dark and indifferent heavens, and it took him a while to recognise it for what it was. When he did, he bade his steed stop, leapt down, walked over to the thing by the side of the road and looked down upon it.
It was a doll.
A discarded child’s doll.
One so out of place here on this backwoods road that for a second he doubted his sanity, wondered if he was really seeing it. Maybe his mind, hanging by a fine thread since the bloody massacre that had set him on this path, had finally snapped, tumbling him over into loneliness and madness.
That couldn’t be.
He wouldn’t let it.
Nevertheless, when he heard someone say, ‘what are you doing here?’ he felt quite jumpy.
Until he realised that the words had been, in fact, his own.
Unsettled, he looked down at the doll again.
Half of its face was covered by dirt and mud, obscuring some of its features. Yet still it seemed oddly familiar, as if he’d seen it somewhere before. Maybe back in the old days when . . .
But he didn’t want to open up that painful box of memories. And being here in the woods was making him edgy, anxious, impatient for the carnage to come.
So he said, ‘come on, Boy,’ to the steed, mounted it again, and rode off. Before too long, thoughts of blood and steel had invaded his mind once more, and he had forgotten all about the strange doll that lay in the mud by a deserted woodland road.
But it didn’t forget him.
‘Boy’ – that was what he called the steed, the fine black beast that had carried him so far on sturdy legs. The horse seemed to like the name, to respond to it, but he had always wondered if the moniker was too painful a reminder of all that he had lost.
Still, sometimes a reminder was needed. Sometimes it seemed far easier to just give up, to find a new woman and settle in one of the towns through which he travelled. Times like those, the swish of the horse’s tail as he waited impatiently to take to the road once more could cut as deep and leave as lasting an impression as the wound of a blade.
He needed no such motivation now, though, as the alluring view of a town appeared in the distance. That sight was all he needed to spur him on, for this was not just a town, it was the town – the place where the first seeds of his vengeance would finally bloom into full and hateful life.
He could tell that the Boy wanted to race there, seeming to feed off his need for violence like some kind of parasite. But he would not allow it; he wanted to creep silently into town and sneak upon his prey . . .catch the monster he called The Raider unawares.
He wanted this to last.
So he spoke soothingly to the Boy, and they crawled through the night stealthily instead of racing at a gallop.
‘I found the map, you see,’ he whispered to the Boy as they moved. ‘The one that led me here.’ He looked up, peering forward as the town grew closer. ‘It was on one of their bodies.’
The Boy kept silent, as he knew he must. But a wave of intrigue and interest seemed to flow forth from the beast, as if to say, what next?
‘I took it and I followed,’ he said, following the trail of his memories. ‘It’s taken a while, and you’ve been here for some of it.’ He pulled the horse to a silent stop, jumped down and drew his sword. ‘But this is where some of it ends.’
With that, he looked around.
The rain had stopped now, but still a heavy silence hung over the town, as if the world held its breath awaiting his actions. This was eerie but not exactly unpleasant, and he began to smile as he moved through the deserted streets.
That was when he heard the screams.
He ran then, chain-mail clanking, boots kicking dirty water from deep puddles, not caring that people might hear him, just suddenly terrified that one of the screamers may be his target, that someone else was wiping out the life that he had come here to take.
He headed for the tavern.
Kicked open the door.
And saw the carnage.
All the chairs had been turned over, all the tables torn asunder, the floor covered with spilt ale and fresh blood. And as he looked upon this mess, he realised this was not the first time he had seen such chaos, and for a brief second he was almost back there, had almost returned to what once was . . .but that had not been quite like this. Back then, the people, his people, had at least fought back, even the women and children, in the end. But here, the denizens of the inn seemed to have been caught unawares, some killed with drinks halfway to their lips, their faces frozen forever not in fighting rage, but in total surprise.
He walked back outside, unnerved, heading towards the steed.
Then more noises came, joining the cacophony of screams that had torn away the silence of the night. He brandished his sword, wondering what new foe he was about to face.
But then he realised what the noises were.
All through the town, corpses were falling from atop high buildings, meeting the street with sickening thuds of impact.
All through the town, and also near him and the Boy. They crashed to the ground, and the horse jumped away in surprise. He, however, was not so quick, and his armour was coated with blood and other body parts he did not wish to identify.
Everything was happening so quickly, almost faster than a person’s mind could comprehend it, a dark show of death working its way through this strange town as he stood amidst it. But he did not feel fear and he kept his head, concentrating firmly on what he had come here for, the man he wished, he needed to kill, and he knew, just knew, some inner voice seeming to guide him, that if he followed the screams to their loud epicentre, he would find The Raider.
And then kill him.
He raced to make it so.
But he was disappointed.
The smell of smoke had hit him as he ran, assaulting his nostrils and seemingly leading him towards something. What he found was a huge building in the centre of the town, the biggest one around, some kind of Town Hall from the looks of it – and who he found on the veranda of the building was the man he had come here to kill.
His hand clenched around the hilt of his sword.
He seemed to hear the Boy, and all those voices from the past, urging him on.
There was only one problem.
The building was on fire – was the source of the smoke he’d smelled.
Still, he ran towards it.
Certain that his hate, his anger, would drive him through the flames.
But they didn’t.
And then he heard something.
He looked up, and was amazed to see that The Raider – the man who had stalked him through a thousand dreams of failure – was screaming.
‘No!’ the man yelled. ‘Stay away from me!’
Then the words lost their form, The Raider’s protests breaking down into simple screams of pain.
Screams that should have been music to the ears of the man listening down below. But they were not – how could they be, when he was not the person causing them?
The thought drove him to despair, pushed him past the path of reason, and for a second perhaps he really was insane, as he had suspected of himself earlier, when he’d seen that strange doll by the road. For in that instant, he was finally ready to brave the flames and rush inside the building – anything, to have his vengeance.
So he ran towards the door.
And that was when the building exploded.
He was thrown back, rocketing through the sky, and in the distance he heard the Boy rear up and run away, scared by the blast. By that time, he had landed, and was glad of the soft landing. Until he pulled away his sticky hand and realised what – or rather who – had broken his fall.
Pulled himself up from the pile of dead bodies.
Then looked to the side.
And saw The Raider’s cold, dead eyes staring into his.
Robbed of its life, it was no longer the face of nightmares. In fact, he looked almost serene.
Further down his body, though, there lay a different story.
The Raider’s hands were burnt charcoal black, the skin completely scorched away. Maybe natural for someone who’d been in a fire . . but then, the man looking down on him wondered, why wasn’t the rest of the body burnt that way?
It looked as if the Raider had willingly stuck his hands into the very heart of the fire.
Or, he now thought, had had the very heart of the fire brought unwillingly to his hands.
Which led to the question, who was behind it? Not just what had happened to The Raider, but what had happened to the whole damn town?
He thought about it as he headed off to find the Boy, and he also asked himself where he would go next. He tried to keep his spirits up – something might have killed The Raider, but he still had the second target to look forward to: an immense creature called The Bear.
He was soon on the road towards that confrontation, leaving The Raider’s town – what remained of it – behind forever. Never realising that a strange yet familiar object lay amongst the debris of the exploded building. Never noticing the way that the doll he’d seen earlier turned its head to watch him.
He spoke to the Boy again, later that day.
‘The Bear was where it all started,’ he said, trying and failing to keep the bitterness from his voice. ‘He was the one they sent in first.’
It was so easy to slip back into memories as they travelled – to fall back into a distant past that sometimes felt like someone else’s dream.
So easy to remember that night The Bear turned up in the tavern. Walking in as if he owned the place, the bar going silent in the wake of his entrance. They were just a simple fishing community, none of the men given to carrying a weapon. And here he was, amongst them: this bearded demon who drank like there was no tomorrow and looked contemptuously at the men-folk whilst leering lustfully at the women.
The Bear drank until closing time, refusing any attempt to engage him in conversation, any effort to find out why he was here. Then he had left, and the people of the town had breathed a sigh of relief, thinking they’d seen the last of him.
They were wrong.
‘He came back, you see.’
Yes, he’d been there the next morning . . .standing in the middle of the town and challenging people to fight him.
Theirs was a peaceful community, so most of the male villagers ignored his request, closing their ears to the call of ‘cowards’ he yelled after them. But macho pride could be a funny thing, and so it was that some of the men folk took him up on his offer.
‘Know what he did, Boy?’
The Bear broke most of them. Snapped them over his knee and cast them aside.
Others that came at him with borrowed swords and maces, he’d ran through or clubbed to death.
‘Let’s rest for a little while, Boy.’
He had to; the tears that suddenly stung his eyes were making it hard to watch the road.
So he made a fire, and as he sat down before it he suddenly realised how tired he was. How long since he’d slept? He couldn’t remember. But he knew that he wanted to do so now.
He stretched out on the ground.
Thought about the towns through which he’d travelled.
There had been so many of them, and sometimes, they almost looked like home. Like somewhere he could settle again. That had always just been a pipedream, though . . .something with which to amuse himself between the thoughts of violence. But now that vengeance against The Bear was so close to him, the question assaulted him with more force than ever before: what happens next?
He didn’t want to think about that.
So he thought about The Bear and The Raider instead.
They were travellers, too, had been on the road as long as him, and he had come close to finding them so many times in the past, before the pair had broken off their partnership and gone their separate ways. He had been through so many towns pursuing their trail, always arriving just that day too late, sometimes just that hour too late, and that was the most maddening thing of all, that he’d been so close to them and yet so far away. Still, his resolve was strong even if other things inside him were not, and he had continued his search, always carrying on . . .forever following the trail of the dead.
Now, finally, they had returned to their homes; and the map he had found in the aftermath of the massacre had told him where those places were. The Raider laid down arms in the town he had just visited, and The Bear . . .well, he chose to reside somewhere much stranger.
Somewhere only a man like him would make home.
The man slept beside the Boy, and dreamt of blood.
Such fine visions kept him in good spirits that day – until he saw the doll again.
He thought, at first, that he was going round in circles; that he had merely returned to the spot where he had found the thing previously. But that made no sense; he was heading away from The Raider’s town, and that backwards road was but a memory now.
So how was the doll here?
He didn’t know.
But then something strange happened.
Without his bidding, the Boy moved towards the doll.
‘Hold it,’ he said.
The horse kept on moving.
‘I said hold, damn it!’
Even as he spoke the words, he felt guilty. This horse was the closest thing he now had to a friend, and though it had been a while, he was fairly certain that you shouldn’t shout at friends.
As he thought this, the animal came to a stop.
Just before the doll.
He looked down at it.
Locked eyes with it.
And suddenly he remembered . . .now that the mud and the dirt had gone from its face, he recognised the doll.
Günter had owned one just like this!
The memory of that name – the boy before the Boy – made him ache. But the doll seemed to look up at him, seemed to whisper that it knew, it understood, and he leapt down from the horse without thought, disentangling himself from the stirrups on instinct. Feeling, as he met the ground, as the impact jolted up through sturdy boots that had walked him through several lifetimes, that he was jumping back into his past, that he was reclaiming times that once were.
So he picked up the doll and held it close to his face. Smelling the earth on which it had lain and feeling the damp from the rain that had fallen on it. But most of all, feeling the pain of what he had lost.
He looked back up.
All he had left now was the Boy.
Unless . . .
Could they not take this doll with them?
The more he looked into the thing’s button eyes, the more that seemed the most sensible thing to do. Maybe the fates had left it here for a reason, for him and him only to find. Maybe it should ride with him as he went to kill The Bear . . .maybe, like the Boy, it would remind him what needed to be done if he should falter in his quest.
He strapped it onto the Boy’s harness, and together they rode off. Towards confrontation.
For days he travelled, through towns and across plains, and each second made him more excited about the culmination of his quest. One of the two men he had wanted to kill had been taken from him, but he had made his peace with that; he would just make The Bear suffer twice as much to make up for losing The Raider.
The thought drove him on.
And soon The Bear’s resting place loomed on the horizon.
The distant sight thrilled him; how he longed to storm it now, to put his hated enemy to the sword.
But he was tired.
The journey had sapped his energy.
And what was one more day, after all this time?
So he made camp again, built a little fire, and sat down to face the doll.
Where he had once spoken to the Boy upon their travels, he now spoke to the doll. He could not explain why this was, but he suspected that he was trying to sever ties with the animal, in case the aftermath of his vengeance should find him . . .no longer here. He thought that keeping something of an emotional distance away from the beast would make things hurt slightly less in the long run, for one or both of them.
That was why he now told the doll about the town.
About all of the good times he’d once known, about courting and finally marrying Sarah. About Günter, who had followed after three years of marriage. Then, finally and regretfully, about the coming of The Raider and The Bear.
‘The big guy was some kind of scout,’ he told it, as they sat around the crackling fire. ‘We didn’t know he was called The Bear then. I found that out later.’
The doll looked at him.
He began to feel bolder in its presence, beneath its gaze, opening up corners of the memory that he’d kept under wraps until now.
‘He was sent in to whittle us down, to rob us our strongest men.’ He remembered those foolish to take The Bear on, the men whose wives and children had watched them die, recalled the sounds of snapping spines, and he shivered, he cringed. ‘We talked about ganging together, forming a group and taking him on en masse.’
Did you? The doll seemed to say. Did you really?
‘But then,’ he said, ‘the next morning, The Bear was gone.’
He felt as if the doll was listening.
As if it knew exactly what he was saying.
‘But,’ he went on, ‘this monster hadn’t gone far.’
He saw the memories spring to life within the flames in front of him.
‘The Bear came back,’ he told the doll, ‘and with him The Raider. And behind them both, a massive hunting party.
‘Come to pillage.’
He closed his eyes.
‘Come to kill.’
He opened them again, and saw his present: the horse, the doll, and the revenge he would soon take. But what came next? He just couldn’t dispel that thought, no matter how hard he tried. What would he live for when The Bear was dead?
He pushed the thought away, stepping back into the past instead.
Saying, ‘they took us all, doll. Can you believe that?’ Though the thing was silent, he sensed it did, in fact, believe that. ‘What could we do, though?’ He looked away from it. ‘We were just peaceful people.’
From where it lay, the Boy looked up at him, too.
He suddenly didn’t feel so alone.
‘But I fought,’ he said, still looking away. ‘I found a sword, and I fought. And I may have lost, we all lost, but I found the map, and I found out who they were, the two leaders, and tomorrow I’m going to kill the last remaining one of them.’
He looked into the distance.
And prayed his words would come true.
The Bear had retreated to a place to be alone . . .a place no one else would go.
A haunted Fort.
The man who was hunting him wasn’t sure if he believed in ghosts. Though sometimes, he wished he did.
It didn’t really matter, though. Belief or not, he would enter the place. He had come too far not to.
But he’d do so alone.
He dismounted the Boy and looked into its dark and proud face. He felt like he should say something, considering how long and how far they had travelled together. But all he could think of was, ‘time to go, Boy.’
The horse looked at him curiously.
‘Don’t know if I’ll be coming back, Boy.’ He really didn’t. ‘No need for you to come in here, too.’
He wondered if the horse would be able to come in, if the place really was haunted. Didn’t some say that animals were more perceptive to ghostly activity, could see things invisible to the human eye?
But that was the stuff of old fishwives tales, wasn’t it? Yes, he’d heard such talk many times before, and he’d seen nothing to prove it. Then again, there had once been a time when he hadn’t believed in men like the Bear, too, so who knew what was true?
As he pondered this, the Boy continued to watch him.
‘Yah!’ he suddenly cried, and, startled and scared, the horse at last rode off.
He watched it go for a while, trying to figure out what he was feeling. Then shouted, ‘stop!’ as he remembered that the doll was still within its harness.
But it was too late.
The horse was gone.
And he was alone.
So he pulled out his sword and entered the Fort.
The shadows immediately assaulted him, along with what felt like a hundred cobwebs. He brushed them aside, struggling to swallow his disgust, and crept along the hallway.
Heading towards the stairs.
Holding in his breath.
Somewhere inside was the man he had come here to kill.
The Fort was so big, so physically daunting, and in every direction he looked there seemed to be a door or a hallway leading off somewhere. A man could search a place like this for years. But he didn’t have years.
So he stopped.
Took a look around.
Trying to ferret out his foe’s scent.
Something told him to move upstairs.
He crept as silently as he could, wanting to catch the big man by surprise. Stealthily, and with deadly purpose, he kept to the wall, moving ever upwards.
Until a huge doorway loomed before him.
He walked to it.
Laid his hand upon its surface.
Thought of Sarah.
Thought of Günter.
The door creaked open.
To reveal someone inside.
Someone seated, their back to him.
But he knew who it was.
‘I’ve come to kill you, Bear,’ he said.
‘Do it later,’ The Bear said, not turning around. ‘I’m busy.’
But there would be no later.
He knew that now.
‘Get up, Bear,’ he ordered. ‘Let me see you before I kill you.’
Sarah and Günter and everyone else from the village, all the rest of the dead souls he had been carrying around with him for so long, seemed to scream inside his head as he inched further into the room, closer towards his target, begging him for the release that only he could grant them.
Before him, The Bear let out a sigh – a loud, theatrical one, completely at odds with his fierce persona.
Kill him, a vengeful voice whispered in his ear. Be The Hunter.
And suddenly he was.
It had been so long since he had talked to anyone, other than to get directions or for information on his prey, that he had long since abandoned any concept of his name, any idea that he was a person with a beating heart and a purpose beyond vengeance. But now that he was here, now that this time had come, he could bestow upon himself a title: he would be The Hunter, and the man before him would scream that name before he died.
Following his sigh, The Bear spun around.
‘I told you,’ he said. ‘I’m busy.’
The Hunter gasped.
‘I have company.’
He did indeed . . .but as The Hunter looked on, as he tried to assess what he saw before him, his brain protested, screaming out, this doesn’t make sense! For how could it be that the doll, last seen riding into the distance attached to the Boy’s harness, was now sitting here, on The Bear’s lap?
‘Let me give you a clue,’ the doll said, the sound making him jump.
The Bear grinned, revealing blackened and rotting teeth.
‘I killed him,’ it said.
‘No,’ The Hunter replied, shaking his head.
The doll nodded. ‘Yep. That’s just what I did. Let that lovely little horse of yours ride out into the woods somewhere and then dealt with him.’
‘No,’ The Hunter repeated. ‘You couldn’t. You’re just a doll.’
‘Remember that second time you found me,’ the doll asked, fixing its eyes on his. ‘The way it came over to get me, even when you told it not to?’ It smiled. ‘It was me that made it do that. I jumped inside its mind, made it do what I wanted.’
‘Funny little guy, eh?’ The Bear’s speech seemed slurred now, as if he’d been drugged, though The Hunter suspected that something else was now wrong with him. ‘Helpful, too.’ He looked up at his foe. ‘Told me you were coming.’
The Hunter came closer towards the odd pair, his sword aloft before him. ‘So why aren’t you armed and waiting for me?’ he asked.
‘I don’t need to be,’ The Bear told him. ‘You’re not going to kill me.’
The Hunter laid the tip of the sword against his throat. ‘You’re wrong.’
‘He’s not,’ the doll said.
And lightning suddenly surged from its eyes.
The bolts crashed into The Hunter, throwing him back against the wall. He was back up on his feet in seconds, driven by anger . . .but a few seconds were all it took. All that the doll – or whatever evil lived inside the doll – needed.
It leapt into the air, spoke a series of words in no language The Hunter had ever heard, and The Bear was covered in a black blaze of flames.
‘No!’ The Hunter screamed. ‘He’s mine! Mine! You can’t have them both!’
He tried to push forward with his sword, to take at least some revenge on the man who had robbed him of so much, but some kind of energy field covered the burning man, and the blade was deflected, snapped in two by the doll’s magic.
He was now unarmed.
But he would not be stopped.
‘Give him back to me!’ he demanded, and tried to grab the doll, which floated just out of reach, taunting him, laughing at him. ‘Let me kill him!’
It would not.
And The Hunter could only watch as The Bear continued to burn, thrashing around in his chair, unable to move, trapped by the doll.
And he now understood why The Raider’s hands had been so severely scorched.
And he fell to his knees, seeing that all he had lived for these past few years was gone. Taken away from him.
He prayed for death.
And the doll came to grant his wish.
‘Weak, simple man,’ it said, floating over him. ‘Your thirst for vengeance could be smelt a world away. So could your guilt, your anger, your bitterness.’ It came to the ground, landing at The Hunter’s feet. ‘It excited me.’
‘What are you?’
‘Something you’ve never known,’ the doll said, and laid a hand on The Hunter’s head. ‘But I know you.’
The Hunter closed his eyes. But there was no hiding from the powers of the doll.
‘Most of all, I know your lies.’
He began to weep.
‘Even the ones you tell yourself.’
It spoke into his ear, its words soothing but its tone mocking.
‘You thought this Fort was haunted, didn’t you? You thought there’d be ghosts here.’ It paused, theatrically. ‘Why, I think you’re right – let’s see who’s here!’
And suddenly the Fort was filled with noise, with the sounds of life. He forced his eyes open – and was amazed by what he saw.
Sarah and Günter were floating towards him.
The rest of the town behind them.
He wanted to run to them. To tell them all how he loved them, and how he’d missed them.
But something stopped him.
The hate within their eyes.
They began to float around him, began to bang their hands against the ground, thud-thud-thud, again and again, a deafening sound like the drums of hell. The noise made his nose bleed, his head throb.
But worse were the words.
For they carried within them the truth.
‘You fought, you said. You said you defended us. But you didn’t.’ They came in close, screaming into his face. ‘You hid!’
And that was no lie – his tall tale the other night had been hyperbole, a falsehood crafted to give him courage in this, the final hour. His life since the massacre had been a lie, his quest for revenge an attempt to murder his own guilt.
‘I had to!’ he yelled. ‘There were so many of them!’
‘We fought,’ an army of male voices told him. ‘We fought back, and died.’ They sneered at him. ‘But not you. You just hid!’
‘You hid and watched as your wife and son died!’
Now it was Sarah, whispering in his ear. ‘But that story you made up about the map was pretty amusing – no wonder you only ever told it to a horse! Why not tell us the truth, darling?’
The thudding of the ghostly feet continued.
‘Tell us all how you found a raider who wasn’t quite dead, and tortured from him the home of the people who’d led the raid.’ A pause. ‘Tell me, daddy.’
He opened his eyes and saw the doll, saw the army of spirits, and asked, ‘stop it, please! Just kill me.’
The doll leant over him, opening its mouth wide, revealing thousands of fanged teeth and, beyond that, its true identity, the power that had taken the image of a doll to pry open his vulnerability.
‘I’ve snapped your spirit,’ it said, ‘by taking your revenge away.’ It leant in close, breathing into his face, exhaling the breath of something not of this world. ‘I’ve fed upon your guilt, by making you face up to the truth about your past.’ A tongue emerged from its mouth, licking away his tears. ‘Now I’m going to take your soul, too.’
The Hunter closed his eyes.
Heard the thundering of the ghosts grow louder. Closer and yet further away, as if the part of his mind that understood distance had closed down.
Yet it was strange . . .a thunderous noise seemed to be coming from outside the room now.
The doll looked up.
And for the first time, he saw confusion on its face.
That was when the door burst open, and the Boy surged in, and there was a huge cut along its side, was blood along its flank, as if sharp teeth had torn into it, teeth like the ones inside the doll’s mouth, but the horse still had its strength, and it reared up and with a powerful lunge of its two front hooves it kicked the doll away from The Hunter, off his body, and they both watched as it flew into The Bear, into the inferno his body had become.
The ghosts screamed as one, a ghastly sound he would never forget, and then the doll was screaming, too, and trying to get out, but he was quicker, he would not let it, and The Hunter was already moving, going for his shattered sword, and he grabbed it and thrust what was left of it into the doll’s body, but now it wasn’t just a doll, it was a head made of snakes, a series of green, lolling tongues that rolled out of the fire, trying to take them with it, and one of them wrapped itself around the Boy’s leg and tried to drag him forward, but The Hunter would not let it, would not fail something he cared about once more, would not let cowardice take him again, and he stamped down on the tongue, crushed it into the ground until putrid green blood splashed up into his face and over his armour, and at the same time he kept pressing forward with the sword, forcing it through until he was almost in the flames himself. But the horse neighed at this, seeming to tell him no, and he backed away, leaving his sword, letting it burn.
Watching as the doll and The Bear burned out of one world and into the next.
He sat by the river.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
The horse looked up at him.
‘I let you down.’
It put its head back down on the ground.
‘But I’m going to find you help,’ he told it. ‘I’m not going to let you die, too.’
Then he started walking towards the town in the distance – a town where people, not vengeance, would reside.