“It came this way,” Markus whispered. “See the stain on the wall?”
His lad peered into the gloom. Markus rolled his eyes, and pushed young Jansen closer.
“Dark patch, over those bricks.”
“That’s from the monster?”
Did he have no common sense? Sometimes, Markus wondered if the boy was truly his.
“Grease, from its paw. It came from there,” and he pointed across the field, to the gap in the fence, “and went round Arthur’s shack.”
Jansen nodded sharply. His mouth cracked into a smile that looked forced. “So we follow?”
The rifle was warm under Markus’s hands, and he pictured himself firing, bringing the beast down. He visualised the shot—lining it up, keeping his position firm, and then squeezing the trigger, just as his old man had shown him. He imagined the kick-back, and saw the shaggy thing go down. A clean kill.
But he shook his head “Not our job. We’re last line, remember?”
“Watching a hole!”
“Hey!” He cuffed the lad round the head. “It’s an important position. Anyway, heads up. Gaffer’s here.”
Gregor wandered over, dog-end clamped between his lips. He had his hat pulled down, but his eyes darted about constantly, ever vigilant.
“Any news?” Markus asked.
Gregor waved a finger. “Just as I said. Went for the sty. Grabbed a porker.” The roll-up glowed, somehow stuck to his lower lip. “Reckon it’ll make a run. You’d best prepare.”
“It’s coming our way?” Jansen’s voice shook. Markus knew it wasn’t only down to the cold.
Gregor smiled and rubbed a grime-stained hand through the lad’s hair. “Scared, lad?”
Gregor laughed. “Aye. An’ your ma will be scrubbing your britches the morrow.” He turned to Markus, lowered his voice. “Just make sure he’s around to wear ’em again.”
Markus nodded. Of course he’d watch over the lad. From seeing how his own ma crumpled after his old man’s death, Markus couldn’t imagine what effect losing a bairn would have.
But he had no time to answer Gregor. A scream pierced the night, followed by shouts and gunshot. Jansen gasped, and Markus put his hand on the lad’s shoulder, pushing to slow the trembling.
He turned his head, seeking other sounds. Boots, more shots, shouts. He discounted echoes, searched for the origins.
“It’s coming,” Gregor muttered, then ran, calling out to others, rallying his troops.
“Come on.” Markus pulled Jansen round, then walked away from the huts. He glanced round, saw his son following, then slowed, let Jansen draw level. “We stick to the plan, we’ll be fine.”
The nightmare flashed through his mind—the empty click of the gun, his father’s rough hand shoving him away, then the scream and the wet dog stink.
But that wouldn’t repeat. This time, he’d put that memory to rest. This time, he’d end the nightmare for good.
Shouts filled the air, followed by cracks and flashes of weapons. Jansen gulped, the sound loud enough for Markus to hear, and they both looked to the houses.
A dark shape moved on a roof. Long legs, tail swishing. It carrier an object that might have been a dead pig.
“To the side. Now!”
Markus moved to the left of the gap in the fence, pushing Jansen to the right. The lad dropped to one knee, bringing the old pistol up, both hands holding it steady. Just like Markus’s father had shown him.
The creature jumped, consumed by the shadows. More shouts, cursing, guns firing. And then it came for them.
It sprang from the dark and ploughed into the field, weaving from side to side. Markus raised his rifle, followed the beast in the sights, waiting.
“Only shoot when you’re sure,” he said. He heard a whimper from his son, wanted to turn. “Don’t worry. It’s making for the gap, not us.”
He hoped that sounded more confident than it felt.
The beast ran fast, and within a couple more heartbeats was in range.
Markus squeezed the trigger. The rifle bucked in his hands.
His son’s pistol echoed the sound.
The beast ran on. Cursing, not caring if Jansen heard his language, Markus lined up another shot. The creature’s shaggy mane flapped around its head, dark with blood around its jaw.
He squeezed the trigger, but there was only a click.
The nightmare shot through his mind, and warmth spread across his crotch.
Jansen’s pistol barked, the shot wide. The beast howled, and charged.
Markus lowered the rifle, gripped it with both hands, and swung. The air stunk of wet fur.
Metal met flesh, and he screamed. Pain shot along his arms, white-hot. Hair whipped his face.
He staggered, slammed into wood.
And saw the beast race through the gap.
Jansen shook, skin deathly pale. Markus pushed himself from the fence and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder.
“Okay?” He wasn’t sure which of them shook harder.
“We missed it.” Sweat glistened on Jansen’s cheeks.
Markus gave Jansen’s shoulder a squeeze. “We did.”
Jansen staggered to his feet. “It’ll come back.”
Markus nodded. “But not for a few days.” He smiled. “We’ve got that time, at least.”
Lights came across the field, from the buildings, and Markus sighed. Gregor would want a debrief. There would be drinking, commiserations, maybe a funeral to prepare. Then, preparations for the next time.
And Markus would spend what time he could with his son. He’d make these days count.
Because that was the other way he could honour his own father, wasn’t it? He would do whatever was needed. He would teach Jansen. He would mould his son into a man.
But for the moment, this was his son. And as Markus grabbed the lad in both his arm, buried his head in his son’s hair, he ignored the dancing lights and the shouts.
“A few days is better than none,” he said, and the nightmare retreated.
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For Blood (II)