‘Are you sure?’
The words were said without context or stealth, but as soon as they were out of her mouth she knew exactly where she was and what was happening. They were in the castle of doom. Both of them. And they’d been in there a while.
She focused in on the trestle table nearby, the paint cans she felt should’ve been on it. Tell him to fuck off again. Hit him on the back of the head and roll him down the slope. Just leave.
‘Are you sure it’s empty?’ she asked, finally.
Patrice popped his Roma bubble jacket back in the room and said, ‘no, you are correct, there is nothing here.’
‘Did you check all the corners?’
‘There’s nothing. I check everywhere.’
Joanna looked around for more potential hiding places. ‘There’s another staircase over there.’
‘We go up there twenty minutes before, you do not remember?’
‘No, we didn’t.’
‘That was a different one. On the other side, the left part of the castle, not this one. This is the right side.’
‘I tell you, there is nothing here. We look everywhere, nothing.’
‘There must be.’
‘It is a castle, at midnight, who will be here?’
‘It’s hiding somewhere.’
‘Yes, hiding, like Jack et le haricot magique…the big plant, how to say…the fairy tale story, Jack and the-…’
‘I’m going up the stairs.’
‘Jack and the magic plant.’
‘Wait here, or go outside. Grab a weapon.’
‘You go up there? Okay, no problem, I will come too.’
Joanna looked at the slabs of stone that made up the floor then the tapestry rugs hanging up against the wall. Nothing usable as a weapon or a shield.
She started walking, not checking back to see if he was following. But when she got to the staircase, and still couldn’t hear any footsteps, she turned to see where he
‘Stop messing around.’
‘I said stop.’
Patrice looked serious for about two seconds then raised his arms in a bear pose and did quite a decent Lou Chaney impression. ‘I am the wolf man.’
Joanna looked at him and the painting of the hairy man on the wall to the side, resisting the urge to rub the daze out of her eyes. There was a slither of eerie recap then revelation. The painting…it was an almost exact replica of the one she’d seen with Sila in Innsbruck. And only almost cos an absolute flawless twin seemed impossible.
‘I am the wolf man still,’ Patrice repeated, adding a soft growl.
‘You don’t have any hair on your arms,’ she replied, looking at the painting.
‘Boss of this castle.’
‘Or your head.’
He stopped, lowering his arms. ‘You think I am not good wolf man?’
‘Ha, si directe. But it is only because I am the better wolf man to you.’
There was a noise from the end of the corridor, drawing both of them away from the painting. Sounded like metal hitting stone.
‘It is outside,’ Patrice said, giving up on his wolf man act completely.
‘It was, I hear it.’
‘So did I.’
‘I have super ears, ears of the wolf man.’
‘Look, right here.’
Joanna turned back to tell him direct, shut the fuck up, but that was hard to do when he was pulling up the top parts of his ears, trying to make them Vulcan pointy.
‘You’re embarrassing yourself.’
‘Embarrassing. Like a clown.’
‘Ah, I know…I just try to give légèreté to this…‘
‘Légèreté. I do not know the English for this.’
‘Then why say it?’
‘It is like comedy maybe. Make things not so serious…you know this word?’
‘It means not serious?’
‘I trust you then. Your English is better than me.’
‘What is the Chinese for this word?’
‘You do not know?’
Joanna held up a finger.
‘What is it?’
There was another noise, definitely not coming from outside, Joanna thought, so she told Patrice to stay where he was, blend into the painting, pretend to be a statue or something, then took out the blade from her jacket pocket and walked slowly to the end of the corridor
well, walked slowly for about ten yards then got impatient and increased speed, turning like a dervish at the empty suit of armour propped up in the corner and stabbing forward instinctively before the Krsnik had a chance to sedate things and run away.
There was nothing, just the door leading out into the courtyard.
She waited an imagined minute and then the noise came again. Ah, it was the door, the wind running through the cracks and forcing it against the hinges.
‘… … … … … … … …’
The blade stayed in her hands even though she knew it would be of no use. Whatever Sila had bumped into, it was long gone now.
Probably a wild animal scared off. Or bored off by Sila’s talk of cabinets and dark light.
‘No monsters?’ shouted Patrice.
‘… … … … … … …’
Joanna returned down the main hallway, past the [possibly nicked] artefacts locked up in glass cases and back to the line of paintings beside the castle entrance.
‘I think it’s gone,’ she said, finally putting the blade back. ‘Or maybe it’s just a well-hidden corpse. I don’t know.’
‘Ҫa fait rien.’
‘What are you doing?’
Patrice was still standing next to the wolf man painting, the poor Spanish noble whose whole body was covered in hair. Without a doubt the same guy who’d had his portrait up in Innsbruck. Must’ve been on a tour of middle Europe, Joanna thought, ignoring Patrice’s call for her to take a picture and switching to the portrait next to it, the knight with abyss darkness for a face.
‘Come on, photo.’
‘Quoi? For what?’
Joanna placed herself next to the knight and pulled up her collar and the scarf she couldn’t remember putting on, and then held her arms straight at her side.
‘What do you think?’
‘Your jacket is pink.’
‘Forget that bit.’
‘You have too many hairs.’
Joanna half smiled, then quickly returned to her impersonation. ‘I’m a better knight than your wolf man.’
‘No, no, no…’
‘Are you taking a photo or not?’
Joanna nodded sharp, no smile.
‘I take a photo of you, but you not take a photo of me. Is this fair?’
‘I don’t think it is fair.’
‘Quickly, my scarf is slipping.’
Patrice said no, not fair a few more times then pulled a phone out of his pocket and lined up the shot.
‘You have a phone?’
‘Now, oui. Yes. I buy this yesterday…bought, sorry. It is very cheap.’
‘Did you call your wife?’
‘Me? No, no…’
‘It is too expensive to do this.’ Patrice looked at the phone. ‘Better to keep money for my ticket, or passport.’
‘Why did you buy a phone if you’re not gonna use it?’
Patrice opened his mouth then closed it quickly.
‘You should at least message her.’
‘Tomorrow. If I really do this lesson, can really get money, maybe I call.
‘Oui, I tell you before. You forget this too?’
Joanna closed her eyes and scanned back. The fragments were out of joint, as usual, Germany mixed with Vicenza mixed with Copenhagen mixed with a bus ride to the castle. Finally, she reached something that seemed to fit. ‘The two Italian men…in the café.’
‘C’est vrai. It starts tomorrow, in the afternoon. This is why we need to go soon. If we stay very late here, maybe I look tired, like the heroin man.’
‘They’re paying you?’
‘It is what they say. Maybe it is a trick, I do not know.’ Patrice looked at the phone again and said something in French.
‘Idiom from home. It is nothing.’
Joanna nodded, turned to look at the wolfman painting then spun back when she glimpsed a blur of movement to her side. ‘What are you doing?’
‘We take photo, no?’ Patrice was now on his knees, pointing the phone upwards. ‘This way can make you look bigger.’
‘No smile, please.’
Joanna didn’t know she was doing one, but straightened her mouth anyway.
‘Okay, good. Now…tell me to fuck off again. Like we practise outside. Fuck off down the hill, Patrice.’
Joanna smirked, but didn’t give him the reward of a full smile or laugh.
‘Okay, done.’ Patrice handed her the phone and stood next to the wolf man painting again. ‘Now it is me.’
Joanna checked her own photo, the pink Chinese knight then lined up the shot for Patrice.
‘You want me to bend down too?’
‘Like this…’ Joanna bent down. ‘Make you scarier.’
‘Yes, scary is good.’
Joanna looked back at the camera and took a shot, but when she checked the image it looked a bit tilted so she told him to keep the pose, she was gonna take another.
Lining up the revision, she felt an abrupt pain in her head, on the left hand side. Like someone prodding from the inside of the cortex. She reached up and massaged it with three fingertips, closing her eyes for a second, and when she opened up and looked at the camera, it was gone, her hand was empty and
forehead sweating, as if she’d been running, but her breathing was steady so it couldn’t have been that fast and
she looked at Patrice to see if he was sweating too, but he wasn’t there, neither was the wolf man, or any of the other paintings, no wait, there was a stern monk portrait, she could see it out of the corner of her eye and
Her vision blurred a bit as she looked down, then sharpened, and she could see the floor was still the same, still giant stone slabs in mathematical formation, but now there was a river of mauve too, running into the cracks, and
she said in Cantonese, shit, someone spilt wine, and then corrected herself and said again in English, someone spilt wine, Patrice, but
as soon as she said it, logic returned to her brain and she realised it wasn’t red wine she was looking at, it was blood, someone’s spilt blood.
She looked around quickly and saw a shadowed lump a few metres down the corridor, sitting on the floor beneath the monk painting, its back up against the wall.
‘Patrice…’ she muttered, rushing over and putting her hand on his shoulder, but he didn’t answer or try to shrug her off, he just lay there on the castle floor, body slumped against the wall, blood pouring out of his neck.
‘No, no, no, no…’
She slapped herself in the face, harder than usual then bent down and tried shaking him, but that just made the blood flow out of his neck faster. Stop, try to think, she told herself, how do I wake him up, he can’t be gone, wake him up, how, focus, how? and the only sound strategy she could come up with was to annoy him.
‘Patrick…’ she said, practically hissing it out.
His eyes opened, marginally, but he didn’t move.
‘Patrick, listen to me. Wake up, you lazy fuck. Open your eyes.’
The eyelids started to shut again so she got a hold of his collar and slapped him in the face, shouted at him to wake up, but it was no good, he wasn’t speaking, no other part of his body was moving, and the wound on his neck…
Joanna stopped, her hand already halfway towards the next slap.
‘Mon cou…un loup…’
‘Don’t move,’ replied Joanna, leaning down to pull him up then changing her mind when she touched the wetness of his bubble jacket. ‘Need a bandage…or cloth.’
She unzipped her jacket and tried to tear her shirt underneath, but it was tough material. Ah, the knife. Pulling it out of her pocket, she grabbed the cuff of her shirt and started to slice.
‘Nearly done,’ she said, looking up to confirm it to him with her eyes and realising that he was out again.
His eyes stayed shut.
She stopped slicing, deciding the piece wouldn’t be long enough and took off the whole shirt instead. There was still the kung food fighting t-shirt underneath, she’d be okay. Colder, but okay.
‘I’m gonna stop the blood, okay?’
Putting her jacket back on, she leaned down and tied the shirt around his neck, tightening it. The blood didn’t stop, but it didn’t dribble any farther down his shirt either. ‘There. Stopped.’
His eyes opened, the tiniest possible slits, and he muttered ‘mon cou’ again.
‘You’re gonna be okay. I stopped the blood.’ She checked the shirt bandage again, determined not to be a liar. ‘Mostly stopped. I think the wound’s not that bad. We just need to get you out of here. Back to the city.’
‘Mon cou? What does that mean?’
He looked beyond her, his eyelids opening further.
‘Cold? You’re cold? Is that what you’re saying?’
‘Cours…’ he said, lifting his head up and loosening the shirt, forcing out more blood.
‘Stop moving, you’ll-…’
‘Run?’ Her brain finally processed the word and then added another: Krsnik. ‘Something behind me?’
He was out again, his eyes closed, his head slumped back down.
‘Patrice,’ she said, shaking him, careful not to open the wound up any wider.
It didn’t make any difference.
She let go of Patrice’s collar and wiped the cold sweat burgeoning on her forehead. She could hear something breathing nearby, a kind of click-breathing, not like an animal exactly, but definitely not human either.
‘… … … … … …’ she whispered.
It was close, maybe two, three metres away, but the clicks weren’t getting any louder. Which meant it was stationary. Observing her.
Calm down, she told herself. It doesn’t attack women, you’re safe.
Her breathing steadied a little, from 120 breaths per minute to 112.
It doesn’t attack women, she repeated, so get up, wave your arms, get it away from Patrice.
She stood up and faced it, edging slowly towards the other wall.
It was difficult to tell exactly what it looked like as the castle was covered in shadow and there was only one window in the corridor, with trees outside blocking the moonlight, but she could see the outline of it, see that it was taller than most humans, scrawnier too, with nails or claws that looked almost like they were glowing.
She pulled the mini-Slovene to English dictionary she’d been keeping in her jacket pocket and looked up the words for are you from Slovenia? before realising that she already knew how to say that phrase. Shit. She put down the dictionary and looked at the Krsnik holding what she assumed was its stomach and asked, in lethargic Slovene, it if it was from Slovenia or Italy. As she said the words, she took three steps backwards, a move that would either draw the creature away from Patrice or offer his body up on a plate.
The Krsnik scraped one of its claws on the floor. Either it didn’t understand or it felt insulted at being connected to one of those countries.
Joanna asked the question again, without the Italy part, and this time it provoked the Krsnik into crawling down the corridor towards her.
‘… … … … … … … …’ she tried, switching to Cantonese.
The creature paused for a moment, as if recognising the sounds then groaned and continued moving forward. Joanna had no choice, she was forced into shuffling back, shuffling so badly she fell backwards into a suit of armour.
‘… … … … …’
Somehow the armour stayed where it was, wobbling a little then settling back into sentry duty.
Joanna stared up.
Shit, another suit of armour, she thought. Maybe the same one from the knight painting. Standing there like a useless spectator.
She switched back to the corridor, finally sliding her hand in her pocket to get the knife.
‘… … …’
The Krsnik had advanced again and was now stooped over Patrice, its claw dipping lightly into the neck wound.
‘Get off him,’ she cried, going back to English, jabbing the blade forward at air.
The claw came back up and vanished into the dark oblong shape that had to be the Krsnik’s face.
She pulled herself onto her knees, reaching out a hand towards the leg of armour, trying to prise it off, use it as a club to beat the Krsnik but
it was starting to throb
her vision blurring
outside on the snow
a hedge above her or to the side and
there was a weight pushing down
an animal with
no, the Krsnik
it was on top of her, trying to scratch her and
the claw was cold and
wait, it wasn’t scratching, it had fallen, with a blade in its neck, her blade, her grey vasic blade, but…was that her, did she do that, where was Patrice, was he okay, and
as the Krsnik toppled off her and onto the snow, she adjusted her position and screamed.
The pain was ice cold, and coming from her leg. She looked down and saw blood mixed with tattered trouser material.
It had got her, how bad?
She pulled herself up slowly, moving the leg little by little and finding the pain more bearable each time, or more familiar, which meant it probably wasn’t as bad as the initial shock suggested.
‘… … … … … … …’
She turned and looked down at the Krsnik.
It was staring back up, breathing like an arthritic pensioner.
‘I’m a woman,’ she said in English, pulling out the bottom strands of her hair.
The creature didn’t answer; it just continued staring just past her, its expression hard to read as its features didn’t seem to shift or crease. Like a Slovene folktale version of Tommy Lee Jones.
Joanna took out her dictionary, surprised it was still there after what she assumed had been a brutal struggle through the castle and into this snowy garden outside. She was also surprised she had lasted this far as she had no clue how to fight and her running was sub-standard at best. But then she remembered, the Krsnik was already injured, stabbed by Sila hours before.
She looked up the words dead and still and tried saying them even though she knew the grammar was probably wrong.
The Krsnik’s eyes stayed fixed on her neck, its breaths getting raspier.
‘Are you from Slovenia?’ she asked, raising her voice above the sudden wind whistle from the trees.
A clicking sound, mixed with staggered breath.
More clicks, followed by one of its eyelids starting to drop.
Joanna clutched her injured leg and dragged herself closer to the creature. It made no moves to defend itself.
‘Are you from Ljubljana?’ she said, into what she hoped was its ear.
The Krsnik’s eyelid closed completely so she reached across and, without any hesitation, forced it back open. She didn’t think about why it only had one eyelid.
‘Where’s Yute Long?’
She slapped the creature in the face, getting back a wailed growl.
‘Chinese man,’ she said in Slovene. ‘Where is he?’
The Krsnik didn’t answer so she tried to slap it again, only this time her hand was swatted away and a claw shot up onto her neck.
Not slashing but squeezing…choking…
‘… … … … …’ she eked out in Cantonese, digging her nails into its arm, its claw, trying to push it off
but the grip
it was too strong and
the Krsnik squeezed tight for ten seconds, fifteen seconds, twenty seconds and then loosened and loosened as its single eyelid closed again and its breaths became slower and slower until finally they ceased and Joanna was dropped onto the Krsnik’s body, landing almost face first in its stomach wound.
‘… … … …’ she screamed out in Cantonese, pulling herself back up and wiping the creature’s blood off her face. ‘… … … … … …’
She looked at the blade in the Krsnik’s neck and then its face and finally she noticed the single eyelid, but it didn’t matter, the thing was dead, it was…
Her face turned and her legs pushed up and she tried to walk fast across the snow, to go find him, see if he was okay, but her head started to throb again and as soon as she felt it, she was falling back down onto the snow.
‘… … … …’
The grey vasic was almost spent, which meant if Patrice was alive, she’d have to drag him back out of the castle, down to the bus stop, in real time, with an injured leg, all by herself.
It was impossible, maybe not physically, but mentally, mentally she was weak, without the vasic, she was weak. She’d never last all the way down, her mind would shift, tell her to ditch him and get herself back instead. It was inevitable, the nature of her brain
Joanna self-argued for around two seconds until Patrice’s neck wound popped back into her head, forcing her quickly into tyrant mode.
She bent down and pulled the blade out of the Krsnik’s neck, alien veins and gore tangled around it like seaweed. A picture of her mum cutting off a fish’s head in her childhood stopped her from bringing up bile as she picked them off bit by bit, being careful to keep the creature’s blood on the edge. Wiping the final bits off on the snow, she poured the dregs of grey vasic onto the blade and paused for a second before shouting do it, you wretch in Cantonese and slicing her forearm. If she was lucky, there’d still be enough on it to get both her and Patrice back to the hostel.
If she wasn’t lucky, it could mix the Krsnik’s blood with hers and
Or worse, turn her into something that would have to spend the rest of its life in castles, preying on men like Patrice or Sila just to
blinked and quickly sensed the environment had changed.
She was standing behind a tree, breathing heavily, and there were other trees around, and the castle, she could see the wall of it, one of its walls, about two hundred metres away, which meant she was on the hill, in the forest on the hill nearby and,
how did she get here, for what reason, why was she behind a tree, was she hiding, where was Patrice?
Poking her head round the trunk, she saw nothing except pale light and other trunks and endless snow, wait, pale light, that meant it was nearly morning, meant the grey vasic was working, there’d been enough on the blade and
the pale light was gone
replaced by no light and stone floor and
she was leaning against the wall next to a blood stain, but no Patrice, and no blood trail leading off that she could follow, but maybe that was a good thing cos if there was no blood trail, there could be no corpse.
She stared at the stern monk painting on the wall and said, no, no, no, he’s okay, he got away, neck wound was superficial, he got up and got away, he might even be waiting down at the bus stop for her to catch up and wash his makeshift bandage and
the monk’s robe in the painting became larger and larger and then darker and tree-shaped and her eyes forced her down to the stone floor, but it was gone and
back in the forest again, not behind a tree, on the path, she was walking down the main path, no, not walking, limping, limping down the path and
she turned and looked back to see how far she’d come and it was quite far, halfway down and if Patrice had somehow got behind her it wouldn’t be hard to find her trail and follow her down cos she was still dripping blood, not much, but enough to stand out on dirt-free snow and
as she looked at the snow in front of her to confirm its whiteness
the whiteness became total, absorbed the trees, absorbed everything except some of the twigs which knotted together to form a ladder and the ladder became a sign with Italian words and
when she looked behind her, the entrance to the town looked back and when she looked in front, the road appeared and
she realised she wasn’t limping anymore, she was standing in the bus shelter at the bottom of the hill, and there was still no Patrice, but that was okay, he’d probably got an earlier bus or a taxi, if he had enough cash, which he didn’t, but he must’ve had enough for the bus otherwise how did he get here, cos she paid?
No, he hated that, wouldn’t have let her, and he had the money she’d given him earlier
And the lessons he’d started
The phone too
He had to have something.
She checked the timetable on the side of the shelter and pulled out her phone, which was almost dead, and realised the first bus hadn’t come, it wasn’t due for another seventeen minutes, which meant Patrice had
he must’ve gone a different way or
She bent down and wiped some of the blood off her jeans, telling herself that his throat was cut not torn, he was fine, not fine here, but fine somewhere nearby, and
she ignored the looks of the two elderly women standing beside her, staring at her leg, and focused instead on the sunrise coming over the hills, trying to suck in its beauty and the beauty of nature in general, and not the nature of the Krsnik or the beauty of its corpse on the blood covered snow with the castle backdrop behind it, and
despite her sapped efforts
the two images combined to make a scene from an old Jin Yong TV series she’d watched when she was young, the legend of the condor heroes, and
the image stayed with her throughout the bus journey, which was a twenty second shot in her head and the walk through the main street of Vicenza, with her leg wound covered by some cloth she’d picked up from somewhere, perhaps the side of the train station, and
stared at the COME TO ROMA poster on the wall in reception and said, ‘don’t talk to me, I’m fine,’ to the hostel manager, ignored his response and scrambled to the room and the image of the condor heroes had gone, replaced by Patrice and his torn out throat and the words she could now hear from outside the bus station, can you come to the castle with me, please, can you come, it’ll be an adventure, can you
she opened her eyes and there were two faces above her, but they were no one she knew so she closed her eyes and
when she woke up again she was in a green-walled room, with Sila and a lady in a doctor’s costume looking at her from above, and she said as a delayed signal, ‘it wasn’t my fault, he followed me,’ and Sila replied, ‘what wasn’t your fault? Who followed you? What happened?’ and all she could think of was to repeat it in drained Cantonese then touch her dry eyes and realise that, even now, she still wasn’t crying cos
deep deep down
despite the can you come to the castle with me? line, which she may or may not have said,
she knew it wasn’t her fault