The Lord Mayor Nicholas Butcher was a troubled man. Lernea was slowly dying. He gazed distractedly out his window over the town while servants helped him into rich, fur-trimmed robes. Once they were done he brushed them away and began wandering towards the dining hall, his mind consumed by thoughts of the factory looming up above the surrounding buildings. He walked past bowing servants, barely seeing them and sat down at a long table that dominated a dining room bedecked with gifts from the surrounding cities and towns. The table itself was a gift from the Emperor for Untford’s role in staving off the great famine fifty years ago. He barely noticed the appetiser of fruits and berries as it was placed reverently in front of him, for everywhere he looked he could see those baleful eyes boring into him, mocking his inevitable fall from grace. This couldn’t be happening.
Nicholas tore himself away from his torments long enough to force a smile as his beautiful young wife entered the room. He hadn’t told her yet. If his fears came to pass it would be disaster for both of them and robbing her of sleep as well would change nothing.
“Good morning, my Lord,” her voice chimed like bells, “you have a meeting with the town council today, don’t you?”
A smile brushed Nicholas’s lips. “That’s right! I had quite forgotten, my love. Where would I be without you keeping me together.”
He watched as the deception lit up her face and in turn brightened his mood. For a few scant seconds at least. He dared to pretend that the reports from his foreman had been some terrible dream. His plate was cleared and replaced with one bearing eggs and sizzling rashers of chain meat, workman slang for the town’s major export. The momentary imitation of happiness he had felt evaporated in an instant.
While his wife ate he glowered accusingly at the food in front of him. The surrounding provinces would eat his city alive. He needed strength for the day though so he forced himself to fight down his nausea and eat. His knife slid easily through the meat and his fork lifted it to his lips. Cut, lift, chew, swallow. Cut, lift, chew, swallow. Once more and he’d made enough of a show to politely excuse himself and stalk out. Dread was being replaced by anger. This wasn’t fair, he’d done nothing wrong. The third generation of Butchers in charge of the factory and this malediction was falling on his head. Nicholas ground his teeth and swept into the entrance hall. Beside the door, leafing through sheaves of parchment, stood Jared Hill. His oilskin coat fell past his charcoal grey breeches and brushed the top of his stained leather boots. He frowned and ran a hand through his short, prematurely grey hair as his dark eyes rested on some unsettling statistic on the page.
Jared had been the foreman of the factory for nearly five years and had excelled at the task. He’d managed to curb the initial decline in production with a number of clever innovations, but the problem was fast outstripping his inventions and efficiency.
“Foreman,” said Nicholas by way of greeting.
Jared looked up from his work, his mouth set in a hard line. “Lord Mayor,” he replied.
The mayor’s expression mirrored the foreman’s. “Shall we?”
“Indeed my lord,” he answered, gathering his papers and retrieving his walking cane from a corner.
The two men stepped out into the light morning mist together, stony silence between them. Neither said a word as they walked to and ascended the steps into the Lord Mayor’s carriage. Neither made a sound as they sat on the velvet seats. Armed guards on horseback took up position and the carriage lurched forward and began to rumble over the cobbles. For several minutes the two men managed to avoid looking each other in the eye. The morning din of the populace rose steadily and infected the silence between the two men.
“You should have a look at these reports before we…” started Jared.
“I’ve seen them,” he replied sharply, cutting him off.
“There are fresh projections in from just this morning though.”
“I have scrutinised every page of every report you’ve produced these past eleven months. I’ve seen every projection, every statistic and they’re all the same, production is down and will keep going down until the factory dies. So no, foreman, I do not need to read that fresh batch of hell on those pages because it will be more of the same.”
The two men stared at each other, a widening gulf between them, long in the making.
“Nicholas…” He tried again more softly.
For a moment the mayor’s glower faltered and he tried to respond in kind. But his friend’s name caught in his throat so he just turned away. Jared gave a pained sigh and gazed out of the other window. They were close enough now that they could almost hear the screams.
Eventually the carriage rolled to a stop and after a few moments the door was opened by a footman. Nicholas gathered up his robes and heaved himself out, followed by the foreman. Ahead of them was the factory. Dull granite walls rose far above the surrounding town. It was a singularly ugly building, horribly shaped with mismatched stones and utterly devoid of decoration. But then again, it had needed creating quickly and building it hadn’t been easy.
They stood together, readying themselves to enter the den of Lernea.
“Have the hunters returned, Jared?”
He recognised the attempt to delay and went along with it graciously.
“No more have arrived. We’re still receiving progress reports from the teams still in the field but for the moment only Kho Cheng and Hrolf’s Wardogs have returned with results.”
“At least we have something.”
“They have viable alternatives, we could make them work.”
“No Jared. You could make them work, I have complete faith in that. It’s a shame it might come to it and production will never be as high. But we may be able to survive. Come, I’ve dawdled enough.”
He strode forward quickly so that he could make a better entrance as he flung open the double doors to the factory floor. He stood in the doorway, silhouetted by light, and surveyed the scene. The chain workers paused their work as daylight pierced the ominous orange glow of hundreds of oil lamps and gave nods of respect to their employer. The chain rats scurried nimbly back and forth, bare chests glistening with sweat, constantly making sure that the metal bindings carried no slack or weakening links. Muzzle strappers lumbered back and forth, decked out in protective suits of chain and plate mail over thick leather. An impressive sight that was completely and utterly overshadowed by Lernea, the captive hydra. Her body was a mound of gleaming black scales, criss-crossed with heavy iron chains, that rose to the height of three grown men. Her legs and tail, as thick as oak trees barely showed through yet more chains and manacles. Her nine heads, each with a pair of burning, slitted eyes and row upon row of teeth like sabres rested at the end of serpentine necks some thirty feet long. One of the hydra’s heads was pulled towards the ceiling with its jaws strapped permanently open so that an endless stream of sustenance could be poured down. Anything would do, rats, rotting waste, even corpses. Eight of the nine, in various stages of growth were likewise strapped and chained but to the floor instead. At the base of each neck there was a gigantic guillotine.
As he watched an overseer standing next to one of the necks, which rose to his shoulder, shouted to his chain workers.
“Blade three, ready! Draggers?”
A group of nearly twenty men, wearing only breeches, boots and thick gloves called back an affirmative and began fixing a chain noose round the base of the heavily muzzled head.
“Muzzle strappers, ready?”
A smaller team of the heavily armoured workers raised fists in acknowledgment.
A lone man standing next to a blazing fire, grabbed an unlit torch, plunged it into the roaring flames and called back.
“Blade three, drop!” shouted the overseer, grabbing a lever next to the guillotine and wrenching it back. It fell like a steel thunderbolt and clove through flesh, skin and bone. Instantly the great beast began to thrash in agony and rage. A choir of screams blasted the factory floor. The chain workers were too busy flying into activity to pay it much heed, they’d heard it a thousand times before. The draggers quickly began unfastening the multitude of restraints anchoring the dead flesh. A signal was given and at the far end of the factory a counterweight was dropped and the severed limb was yanked unceremoniously away from its former home. Meanwhile another team of men began hoisting feverishly at ropes connected to the guillotine, hauling it slowly up to await its terrible purpose once again. The lifting of the blade revealed a hideous site, for twin growths were beginning to emerge and swell from the bleeding stump. One was severed immediately by a muzzle strapped with a great axe and the worker who had ignited the torch darted forward to sear the stump closed and prevent proliferation of Lernea’s heads. The seared stump became the latest in an endless series of burnt scars adorning the ruined skin around each of the chained heads. The wound sizzled in the heat as the aborted growth mewled and died in a pool of blood. The second head was allowed to survive however and as it grew the armoured workers began to swarm it and hold it down. A trio fixed a heavily reinforced muzzle to its snapping jaws, for the moment not much bigger than a large dog’s but growing rapidly. Others began throwing chains this way and that and guiding the growing appendage toward the titanic iron manacles fastened to the floor while the three at the head let out the straps of the muzzle, notch by notch to accommodate the growth.
“See how much more slowly it grows than it used to,” remarked the foreman as the bustle continued and another overseer prepared to call for his guillotine to drop.
Nicholas nodded in agreement.
“When I was a boy I remember they grew like quicksilver. You’d have needed another dozen men manning the restraints to keep up with it.”
“I’ve ordered another two guillotines to be constructed and I’m already having blacksmiths prepare the manacles for us to go up twelve active production avenues”
“Twelve heads you mean,” murmured the lord mayor, his attention focused on a squad of butchers beginning to hack the immense slab of chain meat into parts manageable enough to cart off for proper preparation.
“Exactly. I don’t imagine it will work in the long term but it will help us push production back for long enough.”
Nicholas nodded and went silent for a moment.
“We should prepare the meeting, Jared. Have a message sent to the hunters to prepare their offerings. I’ll be in your office.”
The mayor set off to the left, ascending a short flight of stairs to a raised walkway that ran the entire edge of the primary factory room. He had just set his hand on the handle to a heavy oaken door when an overseer gave the call and the great blade closest to the office dropped. Another chorus of screams buffeted him while a jet of hot blood sprayed the door in front of him, spattering his hand in the process. His face wrinkled in mild distaste but he’d worked in his grandfather’s factory as a young man and he was no stranger to such things. A wipe of a handkerchief and his hand was back on the handle, twisting it and pushing open the door. The door’s weight was considerable and he had to set his shoulder against it. Inside the room was spacious and mostly bare. A corner was given over to a desk, meticulously tidy, with folders and stacks of parchment stacked with uncanny precision. The room was unnecessarily large for its purpose, but little thought had gone into it. The factory had been thrown together as quickly as it could be and around an angry hydra, there hadn’t been time for such considerations. The only forethought the original architects had shown was to have doors at either end of the long rectangular room, as they had done in all the rooms surrounding the pit, so that one could travel freely without having to constantly be subjected to the unfiltered screams.
Today though the extra size was useful. A long meeting table had been laid in the centre of the room, with five chairs facing the far door. In the intervening space were several items out of place even in a room such as this. To the right there was a large but shallow wooden trough, a foot deep, five times as wide and ten times as long, filled with dark, loamy soil. To the left were a set of two iron rings attached to the ceiling from which hung a pair of shackles, ringed on the inside with tiny sets of silver spikes. This was going to be an interesting demonstration thought Nicholas. He walked along the row of chairs, running his hand idly overtop of them. The highest members of the town council would be there, the heads of all the guilds who had been made vastly wealthy by the imprisoning of the hydra half a century ago. Alistair, the head of the butchers guild, for obvious reasons. Rylan, head of the blacksmiths guild who had been forging new chains constantly to keep the beast the town’s prisoner. Elinor, head of the merchants guild, another obvious profiteer of the surge in exports. And finally Catharina, head of the cartmakers guild, an organisation that had sprung up virtually overnight to accommodate the tremendous volume of goods that suddenly needed transportation. There had nearly been another guild formed, the smokers and curers, to preserve the meat for long journeys, but after a short spate of intense political manoeuvring the butchers had subsumed the task.
The door heaved open behind him, pulling him from his thoughts. Elinor Rook slid through, wearing robes carefully chosen to be just a little less grand than her host’s, shutting the door behind her as quickly as her dignity would allow.
She took a deep breath as she composed herself.
“Elinor,” smiled Nicholas thinly, moving to take her hand, “I’m glad you could make it.”
Their hands lingered slightly, remembering.
“You don’t seem quite yourself, my friend. Have you called this meeting to officially break the news about production?”
Nicholas snorted, and let go of her hand, a little of his tension taken from him.
“Well of course you’d notice you damned penny counter.”
“Attention to detail is how I became the head damned penny counter. How bad is it?”
“Jared will explain. We have some options though.”
The small talk continued for several minutes until the door opened a second time and the remaining three guild leaders were ushered politely through by the foreman. Pleasantries were exchanged and seats were taken.
“Thank you for joining me here today,” began Nicholas, making a welcoming gesture toward the assembled heads of industry in Untford. Rylan the blacksmith was grinning eagerly, still in good spirits from the order for the new blades. His fervour would wane when he realised that blades and chains would be in lesser demand in the near future. Catharina the cartmaker, one of the few people who didn’t enjoy the mayor’s company, was giving as little attention to her host as her station would allow her.
“I’m afraid I’ve gathered you here with unhappy tidings. As some of you may be aware, production has been slowly declining for some time. We’ve managed to stem the fall but the truth is that the hydra Lernea is dying, and we don’t know how much longer she’ll survive.”
A tide of emotions passed before his eyes as his guests comprehended and reacted at differing rates. Alistair the butcher was the first to break the stony quiet.
“Well can’t we just find another hydra? Chain that up, breed the bastards maybe?”
“We’ve been trying. Desperately. We’ve hired teams of mercenaries to scour the continent and they have been for over a year. We have alternatives though, which we will come to shortly. But first I’ll allow the foreman to fill in the details.”
Nicholas took his seat at the centre of the table as Jared took the floor. He brought the scale of the problem into a harsh light, disclosing the measures that had needed to be taken and delivering a range of predictions from optimistic to grim. Nicholas could hear the wincing and gnashing of teeth to his left and right. The crux of the meeting was fast approaching. The alternative means of production might well see them through, but Nicholas would need the support of the guild leaders. If they turned on him during the inevitable period of political uncertainty then he would be through.
“Which just leaves our plans for the way forward,” finished Jared.
All eyes turned to Nicholas.
He gave a slight bow and retreated to the far door and knocked twice. It opened and a warrior stepped through. Kho Cheng carried himself with quiet, understated grace, as if trying to politely hide the fact that he could kill you twice before you’d finished planning to attack him. He wore no armour, only a faded olive green kimono and sandals. At his belt were two narrow swords and at his back a short bow and several arrows. Eyebrows raised slightly until they saw who followed him through, pulled by a rope held in Kho’s left hand, then mouths opened. A captivatingly beautiful woman stumbled through the door, pulled by a loop of rope round her neck. Long slender legs flowed from a dress of ferns and moss that barely covered her modesty. A tangle of dark green hair fell to her shoulders, entwined with leaves and twigs that somehow added to her allure rather than detracted from it. The pale emerald skin of her arms was wreathed with an intricate web of ropes, tied in the oriental style. More ropes were tied over her eyes and knotted between her teeth, muffling her whimpering.
“This is a woodland nymph, or dryad,” announced Jared, after a few moments for the men of the council to appraise the new arrivals. He gestured toward the shallow tray of soil and nodded to Kho. He nodded in reply, smiling broadly and gave a short bow. His hand twitched slightly and his prisoner stepped tentatively forward. Her bare feet felt the edge of the trough and she stepped up into it, her toes sinking into the soil. The second her skin touched the soil vegetation sprung from it. Grass, mushrooms and plants leapt from the ground to caress her skin. She began walking forward and with every footfall more flourished, creating a band of green a few feet wide in the soil. The rope jerked once more to still her and the man bent, plucked a fat looking mushroom and took a hearty bite.
“With dryads not only could we forage mushrooms and other food from the plant growth, but the grass and other plants could be used for fodder, allowing us to keep large numbers of farm animals in small spaces, without needing fields for them to graze or crops to feed them. And now our second offering.”
He gestured at Kho Cheng who obligingly leaned back slightly to knock on the door once more.
Whereas before a warrior had stepped through, this time only thugs emerged. A giant of a man, wearing only furs, tattoos and ritual scars strode in. Flanking Hrolf were four more brigands almost as large as himself. Every one of them was weighed down with an armoury of large, cruel looking weapons. Between them they were manhandling a vaguely humanoid creature, a chain mail hood fastened around its throat, a bear trap holding its clawed hands together and another its feet. Its limbs were long but well muscled and its skin was covered by thin clumps of hair. Growls emanated from beneath the hood as well as the distinct outline of a long snout and jaw. With surprising care the four towering northmen manoeuvred the beast’s arms above its head, fastening the silver spiked shackles before removing the bear trap. For a few seconds blood flowed freely down it’s arms until the wounds closed up in front of the assembled crowd’s eyes.
“This is a lycanthrope,” explained Jared, long desensitised to such sights, “Hrolf, if you will.”
The burly leader of the Wardogs tore his eyes away from the shivering dryad reluctantly and drew a curved dagger from his belt. He spat on the blade and ran it several times over a flat stone hanging from a leather thong round the musclebound space his neck should have occupied. He gently touched the metal to the monster’s side before bringing it down in a vicious arc, severing a slice of meat from the lycan’s flank. It fell wetly to the floor while the beast shook and howled. And then the flesh regrew.
“They have immense regenerative abilities, not unlike the hydra. This specimen was brought from the Wargveldt and the change is irreversible. Most importantly, we have tested extensively and the wolf curse is only passed on through a bite, the flesh is safe, and no longer even remotely human. Gentlemen, you may leave us.”
The room emptied and left six people, one monster and one terrified victim.
Nicholas waited with bated breath, too scared to move in case he provoked the council to turn on him. A quiet sob from the bound young woman was enough of a trigger to set them off. Three of the councillors surged to their feet, flinging words like madness and unacceptable around, each determined to be the most outraged but not entirely sure at who,.
“Costs will rocket.”
“We’ll become the monsters.”
“The city will be ruined.”
Anger and indignity rose and fell for the thirty longest seconds of Nicholas’s life.
A fist slammed on the table creating enough of a pause for Elinor to rise to her feet and shout, “This is excellent!”
It stunned them into stillness.
“Excellent?” ventured Alistair, unsure but unwilling to abandon his rage so quickly.
“The best thing to happen to this town since we chained that giant reptile down and built a factory around it.”
“How exactly is the slow death of the source of our wealth a good thing?” snapped Catharina.
“While we relied on Lernea, even though production was high we could never push it higher. With these creatures though,” she walked over to the dryad, letting her sentence hang in the air for effect as she brushed a strand of hair from the captive’s face, “we can scale up production as much as we like. If we want to produce more, we build more factories, we hunt more of them.”
The fey creature the Kho had brought before them radiated supernatural beauty like a flame but she somehow seemed to dim next to the merchant, or at least Nicholas thought so. She could smell opportunity and as her piercing eyes caught his for a moment he pictured her entire body, tensed like a waiting predator. He remembered her whole body…
“The northmen have been doing their best to hunt the wolf-cursed to extinction, there’s no way there’d be enough to fuel the growth we’d need,” argued Alistair.
Elinor smiled and her eyes took on a menacing glint as she strode across to the chained nightmare in their midst.
“Maybe not. But there’s never been a shortage of condemned men, has there. And madness can be contagious.”
The sentence hung in the air but only three of the six officials fully heard the words. The heads of the other guilds heard only the dulcet clinking of coins as they began working out how best to leverage the new development. They saw only potential costs, rising numbers in their ledgers and thought only about how quickly new factories could be built. Jared, Nicholas and Elinor heard everything. Madness can be contagious.
The Mayor, standing barely twenty feet from his old friend, had never felt further from the merchant. They locked gazes, searching each others eyes. Nicholas desperately hoping to see madness there, some reason for this coldness. But instead he saw only determination, that fierceness that simultaneously pulled and pushed at his soul. He’d spent months steeling himself for this day, fuelled by desperation and fear and even so he was barely holding his nerve against the horrors he would authorise. But Elinor hadn’t even blinked as he pushed for the atrocities to be multiplied. Was he stronger than her or weaker for being afraid?
Madness can be contagious.
Silence stretched between them as the lesser men began fervently bickering over how profits could be split. Nicholas felt Jared’s gaze heavy on him. Could they do this? Chaining the hydra to suffer beneath the blade was one thing, it was a monstrosity. But condemning people to this?
The nymph continued to shiver and let out a gasp as the beast to her right snarled.
The guild leaders had begun to laugh and shake each others hands. Still the two held each other’s eye. Maybe it would lower crime? Maybe people would fear this greater than death. Maybe things would be better. Maybe it would be worth it. Madness can be contagious.
Elinor tilted her head imperceptibly. It was time to decide. He broke the stare and glanced at the lycan, at what might be his legacy. Which did he care about more, monsters or his town? Monsters or men? Could he even tell? Madness is contagious.
“Begin drawing up the plans, Jared,” said Nicholas, squaring his shoulders and lifting his head.
Elinor smiled slightly and allowed her gaze to return to the nymph.
“We will need more factories, more workers and more….livestock. Send Hrolf and Kho Cheng back into the wild, and recruit more. Pay highly, we need speed.”
“Yes sir. Should we ….disassemble the gallows my lord?” The question was laced, but not with judgement. He was on the Mayor’s side, no matter what that meant.
“Tear them down, we won’t be needing them any more.”
Madness is contagious.
Like the story? It’s the first of three from Episode 1 of The Fires of Fantasy Series, available here
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