The Red Worm's Way
Fair of face, full of pride,
--Swinburne, A Lyke-Wake Song
Sit ye down by a dead man's side.
Ye sang songs a' the day:
Sit down at night in the red worm's way.
Morlock was sober when the coin winked at him, but that wasn't his
fault. Towns were scattered thinly through the masterless lands east of
the Narrow Sea, and he'd been walking and sleeping in the open air for
weeks since he'd had his last drink. The town he finally arrived at
looked promising-- all the shops were shut down; all the people were in
the streets wearing wreaths; the whole town seemed to be gearing up for
a party. If you can't get a drink in a place like that, Morlock
reasoned keenly with himself, why the hell not?
It was what he was still asking himself more than an hour after hitting
town. If there were any taverns in the place they were locked up, the
same as the rest of the shops. He ended up wandering after a crowd
singing various slightly discordant songs; he followed them out to a
large field at the edge of the town which seemed to serve as a sort of
fairground. Here Morlock hoped he would find some agreeable person with
a cask, selling or giving away strong drink of some type-- wine, or
beer, or hard cider at least.
But there wasn't. There were a number of more or less amateur
performances; there were clowns and jugglers and singers; there were
farm animals of various remarkable sizes or abilities; there were
vendors selling a surprising variety of foodstuffs conveniently impaled
on sticks. But Morlock, wandering among the singing, laughing crowd,
concluded that, whatever was elevating their spirits, it wasn't liquor
of any sort he could recognize.
"What good are you, then?" he muttered to the town as a whole, and made
his way through the field with the intention of getting as far away as
he could just as fast as he was able. A town with no drinking was no
town for him.
"Sir!" a woman cried as he shouldered past. "You are a stranger here!"
"Yes," he said, and would have gone on, but she grabbed him by the arm.
"You can help me!" she said urgently.
"Maybe," he conceded gruffly. "I probably won't, though."
"My husband has just died."
Morlock turned to look at her for the first time. She wore a wreath,
like her fellow-townspeople, but it was black and trailed widow's
weeds. Her face was stained with fresh tears and the tracks of old
ones. Morlock had recently lost his own wife, although not by any
process as benign and peaceful as death, which was one of many reasons
he currently preferred drinking to thinking. This widow's apparent
grief at the loss of her husband angered him obscurely. But it also
caught his attention.
"So?" he said.
"There is no one to sit the wake with him tonight. Our town Loukios, as
you see, is on holiday. If you could--"
"Sit it yourself. Or cremate him: that way you won't have to worry
about burying him alive."
"Please, sir. Please
. He is dead--that's not in doubt. And I
cannot sit the wake, or I surely would. His body must lie one night in
state before it is buried, and someone must sit with it to protect it
from--someone must sit with it."
"To protect it from Strigae?" Morlock said coolly "You've a cult of
corpse-eating witches hereabouts is that it? In that case, if I were
you, I'd get the body underground before dark."
"Our laws don't permit that."
"Change them. Or break them."
"Please," she said desperately. "Please. I can pay you! I can pay you
with gold, with good solid gold!" And she held out a fistful of gold
Morlock's interest in gold was slight indeed; he made it by the boxful
whenever he needed some, which was not often. But, as a maker of
things, he had once had some interest in coins. He glanced
instinctively at the discs in her hands.
They were a type which was new to him. Each design was different, and
some were horrible--he seemed to see headless corpses and hanged men on
the gold cartwheels she held out for him to examine. The coins might be
solid and perhaps they were gold, but he doubted they were good
in any generally accepted meaning of the word: they stank of evil magic.
He was about to say as much when one of the coins, showing what
appeared to be a crow or raven wearing a crown, winked at him. It could
have been a trick of the light, but he didn't think so.
"What'll you take for that one?" he asked, pointing at the crow-coin.
Guile entered the eyes of the grieving woman. "That's an especially
valuable one, sir. They say the Crow King will do any service for the
person who holds this coin."
Morlock grunted skeptically and said, "How much for it?"
"I'm not selling these coins, sir. I'm offering them to pay for a
service. You cannot buy this coin; you may earn it."
"By keeping the Strigae from chewing up your husband's corpse tonight."
"Please do not speak so disrespectfully of the Sisters of the Red Worm
(I summon them not!). But that's the general idea."
Morlock thought idly about knocking her down, taking the coin and
running away with it. But his conversation with the woman had drawn a
crowd of interested listeners; he doubted he would get away clean.
Besides, stealing magical gold often had unintended consequences. On
the other hand, he could just say, "No," and walk away. But it occurred
to him that he wasn't going to do that.
"All right," he said. "Keep the others; I just want that coin with the
"I'll give it to you tomorrow morning."
"If I keep your husband's corpse intact."
"Oh no. Not at all. If you stay on watch through the night I'll give
you the coin, even if the Unnamed Ones violate poor Thelyphron. But--"
"Our law says that whatever parts are missing from a dead body after a
vigil must be made up by the watcher."
"So that if poor Thelyphron's nose is missing in the morning, he'll be
buried with mine? Likewise liver, testicles etc.?"
"Yes. That's only fair, wouldn't you say?"
Morlock considered the question briefly. "No. Where do I stand, or sit,
There was a brief patter of applause as those who had been watching
with disinterested interest turned away. Morlock felt almost as if this
he had been performing in a playlet for the entertainment of the
fairgoers. He hoped the feeling was mistaken. The widow led him through
the crowd to a little hut set in the field a little distance away from
the fairgrounds. There were still plenty of people around, though,
laughing and singing.
"How late does your festival last?" Morlock asked.
"Oh, all night. Until noon tomorrow, in fact."
Morlock felt relieved, and it must have shown, because the widow said
earnestly, "You mustn't think that."
"That the Sisters of the Red Worm would be... repelled by... by the
festival." Some of the nearby townspeople turned to look at them with
obvious and not obviously friendly interest. "Quick, let's go in," she
said and hurried through the low door into the corpse-house.
Inside the corpse-house there was, of course, a corpse, lying in fine
garments atop a stone table.
"The dearly departed Thelyphron, I guess?" Morlock said.
"Yes," the widow replied gently, averting her eyes.
Morlock glanced at her and said, a little less roughly, "I'm sorry. To
me this is a different sort of problem, but I'll try not to offend your
She nodded, her face still averted. "I am glad to treat this as a...
problem. Something that needs, and has, a solution."
As opposed to grief and death, Morlock supposed, which had none. He
"I was going to say..."
"About the Strigae," he prompted her.
"About the Blessed Sisterhood. (I name them not!) They... There are
many of them among the townspeople."
"Yes. In the day, they walk even as we do. In the night... They will
surely come tonight, in some numbers. The people nearby--"
"Will be Strigae themselves."
be those whom we do not name. They may not be. But we
do not... we do not..."
"No one will intervene against the Strigae."
"It's too dangerous. The Gentle Sisters (who hear me not; who see me
not) won't harm us if we let them be. And they are so powerful that we
couldn't stop them even if we tried..."
Morlock grunted. "You could leave. Strigae tend to be petty
The widow nodded slowly. "But this is my home. It's the only place I
Morlock knew many places, but he could never go again to the place he
considered home. He shrugged his crooked shoulders and turned away to
inspect the walls, floor and ceiling of the corpse-house. There were
many cracks in the mortar that had been hastily patched. Several
sections of roof were loose; Morlock could swing them back like
shutters on a skylight. There were brown streaky stains on the wall
that were probably blood. The floor was beaten earth with a definite
slope from north to south; several ratholes had been plugged with
plaster. The place stank like the devil, but that's what you'd expect
from a corpse-house.
"You don't think I'll make it, do you?" he said to the widow.
"I hope you will," she said earnestly. "If, during the night, you have
to flee the... flee here to save yourself, I will understand."
"Will you understand so far as to pay me the crow-coin?"
Her jaw tightened. "No. I'm sorry."
"Me, too." He shook his head. "I'll need a couple of barrels of water."
"I'll need a couple of barrels of water."
"--need a couple of barrels of water. Soon, if both Thelyphron and I
are to make it through the night intact."
"It's just--I thought you were going to say something else, I suppose.
I'll get you what you need. I doubt you'll want to eat in here. But do
you want anything to drink, besides water? A mug of beer or wine?"
Morlock shrugged. If someone had had the decency to offer him a drink
an hour or two ago, he'd be well on his way to oblivion by now. And
likely to wake up with his nose and ears chewed off by a Striga. "No,"
he said. "I never drink while I'm working."
"You're a man of principle."
"Hmph," Morlock said dryly, in a double sense, and turned back to
inspect the wall.
Morlock was almost done digging his channel around the walls of the
corpse house when the widow returned with two barrels of water. The
barrels were carried in, one at a time, by a burly young man the widow
introduced as her son, Zatchlas.
"I am called Myrrhina," the widow added, and glanced significantly at
He didn't like the way she'd put that. It was almost as if her real
name was something else, and she had reason to keep it secret.
Sorcerers did that sometimes. "My name is Morlock," he said flatly.
"Oh," Myrrhina said distantly. "What in the world is that you're
"A ditch," Morlock said, descending to technicality. He nodded at the
barrels being lugged into the corpse house by the sweating, rather
softly muscled Zatchlas. "Strigae can't cross running water, you know."
"Er. Yes. But surely the water won't run uphill?"
Morlock shrugged and said, "Can you get me a lantern or some candles?
There's nothing here and I'll need light for my watch."
"Of course. Zatchlas will bring them, won't you, dear?"
From the expression on his heavy features, Zatchlas seemed aggrieved
rather than grieving, and he rolled his eyes at his mother's request.
But he gruffly admitted he'd be passing that way later.
"Good luck to you, Morlock," Myrrhina whispered as they left.
"Don't spend that coin," he replied, and turned back to his digging. By
the time Zatchlas returned, perhaps a half hour before sunset, the
channel was complete, the mirror-gates were set at the high and low
point of the stream, and he was pouring in the water from one of the
He felt Zatchlas' heavy presence behind him as he poured, but said
nothing until Zatchlas said, "You really think that'll work?"
"It might," Morlock replied, and stood the barrel upright.
The water ran down the channel and through the mirror gate. From there
it turned upward, along the square lines of the corpse-house, until it
reached the upper mirror-gate. When it passed through that it turned
downward once more. The scene looked rather like Escher's Waterfall
except for the corpse table in the middle and the fact that Escher
would not be born for well over a thousand years.
"Magic!" Zatchlas whispered.
Morlock shrugged. He never knew what to say to that. "Anyone can do it,
if they know how," he said this time. "That's the trick; knowing how."
"How is it done?" Zatchlas asked.
"The mirror convinces the water that gravity works differently on
either side of the gate; the water behaves accordingly."
"You can't convince soulless matter of something that's not true."
Morlock shrugged. "Water isn't quite soulless, not the way a rock is
(and even then it depends on the rock). Water is also quite gullible,
in small amounts."
"I can't believe it!"
"You I'm not trying to convince. Did you bring the lamp?"
"Eh? Oh, I have a bundle of candles here. Wax candles, not tallow--
mother said you'd know why."
Morlock did. Tallow candles were made from the fat of dead animals, and
were relatively easy to infect with hostile magic. He'd have felt
better if his employer were unaware of this.
"And this," Zatchlas said with some relish, handing over that candles,
and a large covered mug, something like a beer stein.
"What's 'this'?" Morlock demanded.
"A long drink of wine. It'll be a pretty cold night; mother thought it
Morlock snorted, but accepted both the candles and the wine-cup.
"I'll stop by sometime after dark," Zatchlas added. "Not as a relief,
"Just to see how you're doing."
Zatchlas left and Morlock was left glaring at the wine cup.
Morlock hadn't always been a drunk--everybody has to start
somewhere--but by now he was a fairly experienced one. He didn't think
a single cup of wine, no matter how tall, was going to incapacitate
him. But he knew that something started when he began to drink; he
switched from one mind, almost, to another. That, of course, was the
point: his undrunk mind was a burden to him and drink was an escape.
But undrunk Morlock, as annoying as he was in some ways, was more a
more reliable person than drunk Morlock. Drunk Morlock forgot things;
drunk Morlock wandered away from tasks; drunk Morlock reacted to
potential dangers too slowly and ineffectively. If he was going to do
what he had set out to do, he'd have to be sober.
On the other hand, did he have to do what he'd set out to do? He'd come
into this town for a drink. Now he had one. Why not drink it and go?
The widow had even said she'd understand if he didn't stay through the
night. She might even understand if he didn't stay until nightfall. And
if she didn't, so what? He need never come this way again.
He'd never get that crow-coin, though. To get that he'd had to
successfully complete the corpse-watch. To do that, he'd have to be
One the other hand, one drink of wine wouldn't knock him flat. Really,
it would just settle his mind. The thing was distracting him; he never
should have accepted it. But since he had, he might as well drink it
down and get it over with. The sooner he did it, the sooner the effects
would pass. If he wanted to be sober through the night, he really
should drink it now. Now. Right now.
Morlock reached out toward the wine cup and deliberately knocked it off
its perch on the corner of the corpse table. It sprayed its contents on
the packed-earth floor and rolled under the corpse-table.
"So much for that," he said, "and," he added, to drunk Morlock, "so
much for you."
In fact, drunk Morlock and undrunk Morlock hated each other. Someday
one of them would destroy the other, Morlock reflected. He wondered
idly which one would win.
By then the sun had set. He lit the first of many candles, setting it
on the end of the empty overturned water barrel, and waited for light
to leave the sky.
The red fire of torches and bonfires wounded the darkness beyond the
corpse-house door. Morlock often heard laughter and voices, not so very
far away. He could never catch what anyone was saying, but it all
sounded merry enough.
Morlock found it easy to stay alert, though. There was an odd tension
in the air, as if someone had spoken, paused, and soon would speak
There were rats scuttling around the corpse-house. Morlock kept
circling around the corpse-table, prepared to catch them if he could.
But they were wary, and he couldn't even seem to find where their hole
was. But as long as none of them got to the body, he supposed he didn't
Glancing up from his rat-hunt, he saw the red worms.
They were coming through the patchy walls of the corpse-house...
hundreds of them, on every side except the wall with the door. Morlock
watched without doing anything. Strigae must be pressed up all around
the outside walls of the corpse-house; they far outnumbered him. Either
his precautions would work or they wouldn't; if not, he needed to know
now so that he could get out soon.
The worms were a grayish red, the color of a rather unhealthy human
tongue. But they were long and thin, and each one terminated in a
little tongueless mouth with needle-sharp teeth. They wove their way
through cracks in the wall, and extended into the empty air beyond the
wall... and were foiled. When they came to the air over the little
channel of running water they began to twitch and shudder. They could
go no further. One by one they began to withdraw: the water had
Morlock saluted his departing enemies with a rude gesture, but he
didn't imagine this was the end of his troubles. He continued with his
rat patrol, kicking away any of the vermin that seemed to be trying to
climb the sheer legs of the corpse table.
Eventually he heard a thumping on the ragged roof. It was what he had
expected-- Strigae could not cross running water, but they could use a
bridge to cross above it. The wood of the roof would shield them from
the effects of the purifying stream until they had crossed. Perhaps he
should have pulled the roof off the corpse-house, as he had thought of
doing. But the roof served as a protection against arrows or spears or
rocks--from any kind of throwing weapon. Just because the Strigae could
use magic didn't mean they had to and, once he was dead or unconscious,
they could figure out a way to defeat the stream. It would be easy
enough just to slap a board across it; crossing over so close to the
running water might prove difficult but, with a corpse to chew on the
other side, they would no doubt find a way to do it.
Morlock got up on the corpse table, crouching under the low roof, with
one foot planted on either side of the dead man. He waited until
something thumped gently on a loose patch of the roof, just over his
head. He punched it solidly; the patch flew up and whatever was on it
flew squawking away and thumped, less gently, on another part of the
"Get off there!" he shouted. "If you don't get off the roof, I'll pull
it down, and you with it. Then you'll be in here. Within the sacred
boundary of the stream. With me."
The thumping hastily retreated to the edge of the roof. There was the
sound of whispering outside the corpse-house for a while, and then
silence fell. When Morlock was fairly confident they were gone, he got
down from the corpse-table and resumed his rat patrol.
Morlock was lighting a new candle from the sputtering corpse of an old
one when he felt someone was looking at him. He glanced up and saw
Zatchlas standing in the open doorway.
"Good evening," Morlock said, oddly relieved. "I'd offer you some wine,
but I didn't save any."
Zatchlas gave him an unreadable look, then said, "Well, I'm not much of
a drinker. It's a good evening for you, anyway. I saw a cloud of
Strigae around the place and thought you were done for. But now they
all seem to have gone."
"They'll be back, I suppose."
"Almost certainly. But it's amazing you've lasted this long."
"Nothing personal. Many of us are rooting for you, you know."
"Not enough to intervene and help me, I suppose?"
"Not directly," Zatchlas said, a little shamefacedly.
Morlock shrugged; he wasn't surprised.
"Besides, it would spoil the bets."
"You're betting on whether I make it through the night?" Morlock asked,
"Some of us are," Zatchlas said. "So we couldn't interfere, even if we
dared, don't you see? The bets would be off."
"Don't worry about it," Morlock said. It embarrassed him to see the
bulky young man justifying himself.
"But... well, a few of us. We thought we might walk by here a few
times, when the Strigae aren't about. Just to see how you're doing."
"It's all right. I'm sorry we can't do more."
Morlock shrugged his crooked shoulders again. He hadn't expected
anything, so he wasn't disappointed.
"It's just ... I thought you should know." Zatchlas seemed to be having
trouble coming to the point.
"What is it?"
"I think the Strigae left something behind them. It's propped up
against that wall, and it seems to be moving. I didn't want to get too
close to it--"
"But I thought you should know about it," Zatchlas concluded.
"Thanks." This sounded bad, Morlock reflected. If they had left some
sort of device to topple the wall inward, he'd have to do something
about it. The fallen wall might serve as a bridge for the Strigae to
cross the stream. Quite apart from what falling stones might do to his
skull, if he was caught in the collapse. "I'll have to have a look at
it," he decided.
Zatchlas stood away from the doorway to allow Morlock through. As
Morlock stepped across the stream, Zatchlas drew himself up in alarm
and glanced around, gesturing at Morlock to stop.
The gesture turned into a fist and hit Morlock in the face. The dark
world grew a little darker for awhile. When Morlock came to himself he
was lying across the stream with his head almost under the corpse
table. Looming large, like actors on a stage, he saw three rats eating
one of their comrades, who was asleep in a pool of wine next to the
tipped-over wine cup. The sleeping rat whined and snored but did not
otherwise protest as his mates fed on him.
There was some great weight oppressing Morlock. His ribs grated on each
other and creaked. Whistling voices spoke words he didn't understand,
then he heard Zatchlas saying, "I am
careful. I'm being
The weight oppressing Morlock shifted, and shifted again. Morlock
sluggishly realized that Zatchlas must be using his fallen body as a
bridge to cross the stream. That meant Zatchlas was a Striga, or an
ally of the Strigae.
Zatchlas grunted and the weight on Morlock's body nearly doubled. He
was carrying the dead body of Thelyphron. He was carrying it out--out
of the blessed boundary of the stream, where the Strigae could feast on
it in peace.
Morlock seized the fallen wine cup, as the most available weapon, and
surged to his feet, throwing Zatchlas asprawl on the ground outside the
corpse-house, the dead body of his father atop him. With surprising
lightness, he leapt to his feet and ran off again, hauling the body
with him toward the lights and the laughter of the fair.
Morlock ran after him into the carnival night.
Zatchlas was burdened with the dead body, but Morlock had been knocked
almost unconscious. Zatchlas had almost reached the fairground before
Morlock caught up with him. Several groups of people stood nearby,
talking and laughing, in apparent indifference to what was happening
before them. Morlock likewise ignored them and punched the bulky young
man savagely on the right side of his fat sweating neck. (The back and
left side were shielded by the dead body draped over his shoulder.)
Zatchlas went down.
Morlock bent over and seized the dead body with one hand, tossing it
across his shoulder. (Fortunately, the dear departed Thelyphron was
rather elderly, and had died after some wasting disease that had left
his frame frail and thin.) Morlock turned to run back to the corpse
house, but Zatchlas managed to grasp him by one ankle, and this time it
was Morlock who hit the earth with a corpse atop him.
He pushed the body off him and kicked up with both feet as Zatchlas'
silhouette, dark and featureless against the nearby fair lights,
approached. Morlock's double kick made contact with something under
Zatchlas' loose robe that issued a tiny scream; Zatchlas screamed, too,
a second later, in eerie harmony. Morlock leapt to his feet and smashed
the wine-cup across Zatchlas' face. Amazingly, there was still some
wine in it; Morlock saw the spray and Zatchlas screamed again,
staggering back, clutching at his eyes.
His robe had fallen open. Morlock saw that, beneath it, he was naked.
But things were attached to his pale sweaty skin: dark things with
glittering green eyes. They had toothy mouths, each of them issuing
dozens of grayish tongues, like red worms. Strigae: there were a dozens
of Strigae hanging by their tongues from Zatchlas' body.
Morlock felt rather than saw the approach of more townsmen. He looked
up to see the groups from the fair converging on him. They were still
talking and laughing and he still could not understand them. But now he
saw why. There were no heads on their shoulders. Each of their necks
ended abruptly in a pair of dry soft protuberances vaguely like lips.
These moved as air passed through the open neck and they produced vague
wordlike murmurs which were not words. And their hands were clenching
and unclenching as they murmured and laughed and approached Morlock.
He scooped up dead Thelyphron's frail body again and ran back to the
corpse house as fast as he could go. He threw the body through the
doorway, to land asprawl on the corpse-table, and leaped across the
The water level was low--no doubt much had splashed out when he fell in
it. The wine cup had proved a useful tool in need, so Morlock carefully
set it down on the overturned empty barrel, next to the lit candle and
the stubs of its dead predecessors. Then, from the full barrel, he
dumped water into the stream until it ran full again.
He shouted out the open doorway: "Morlock: three. Strigae: zero. Try it
again, you corpse-chewing bastards!"
He figured they would try something again, and he had a better chance
of repelling it if they acted hastily and recklessly. He straightened
Thelyphron's body out on the corpse table. If that jaunt didn't wake
Thelyphron up, he reflected, nothing would.
"I'd like a drink," he reflected aloud, and glanced ruefully at the
Amazingly, miraculously, magically: it was full. His impulses betrayed
him; he had the cup in his hands and was drinking before he'd decided
to do so.
The wine was gone in an instant. It was strong, not very good--there
was an oddly bitter metallic taste to it. That didn't matter: Morlock
wasn't a connoisseur of wines; he was a drunk. He drank it all, and
didn't waste any.
At least there was only one cup, he reflected, as he lowered it from
his wet lips and set it down empty of the barrel next to the candle. He
looked at it again and saw that it was full. He started to reach for it
again, but stopped himself.
All right: it was there. Myrrhina must have sent him a magical cup
which would refill when it was set down. A generous thing to do; she
probably hadn't realized he was a drunk. (It meant she knew a little
magic, but he had already suspected as much.) The night was already
well advanced, too-- perhaps the Strigae were discouraged and wouldn't
attack any more...
He drank the cup dry again and set it down.
Morlock was not yet drunk, but drunk-Morlock very nearly had the upper
hand. Unquestionably, he would be drunk soon; there didn't seem to be
anything to be done about that now.
But he decided that he would do a rat patrol, one circuit of the corpse
table, for every drink. That would slow down the process some, and
perhaps he and Thelyphron would make it to sunrise relatively intact.
Morlock took a quick trip around the corpse table in record time; there
didn't seem to be any rats trying to climb the table. Perhaps they were
all asleep, or discouraged. Or drunk. Morlock chuckled a bit at that
thought as he drank his third cup, wasting some of the wine. He
supposed one could get used to the brackish metallic aftertaste.
Morlock's trip around the corpse table went a little slower this time.
It was really odd that there were no rats; there had been earlier. He
remembered seeing them earlier.
He peered under the table and saw some rats there, the same ones he had
seen after Zatchlas had struck him. The one who had been sleeping in
the pool of wine was now dead, great troughs of raw flesh opened up in
his sides. Beside him lay his three comrades, sleeping beside him,
their bloodstained mouths yawning open, their snores making their
whiskers quiver. It was really almost touching, the three rats wearily
resting beside their fallen comrade. It would have been really
touching, of course, if they hadn't eaten him alive, but still... He
wondered why they were tired, so tired, almost as tired as he was
himself. It almost was as if they really were discouraged. Or drunk.
Morlock swore violently and staggered to the open doorway. He shoved a
finger into the back corner of his mouth and leaned forward. Soon he
was vomiting like a fountain, striving not to drip anything into the
protective stream which would defile it. (Striving successfully: he was
an experienced vomiter.)
When his belly was empty of the drugged wine he leaned wearily against
the doorpost and wiped his mouth with his sleeve.
He had no idea what was in the drugged wine, but it had to be pretty
potent: the cannibal rats must have passed out simply from eating their
drugged comrade. He didn't think the drug itself would be fatal to him:
no doubt the Strigae looked forward to chewing his flesh, as well as
Thelyphron's. But he had to come to grips with the fact that he might
pass out soon. Indeed, he already felt it might be more than he could
do to stand away from the doorpost.
They were watching him of course; they had watched him from the start.
Perhaps Myrrhina was one of them; perhaps she wasn't. It suddenly
occurred to him that Zatchlas had brought the wine; perhaps she had not
sent it at all... But in any case, they had seen him drink the wine;
they had seen him vomit. When he passed out they would see that, too,
and come for Thelyphron... and for him.
Unless they couldn't
see. He nodded to himself, then regretted
doing that: it was as if his head were half-full of some warm dark
fluid, and moving it made the fluid slosh about... He nearly passed out
then, but pulled himself together.
He pushed the doorpost away and stood as straight as he could.
Unhurriedly, trying to make it look less labored than it was, he
crossed over to where the candle was burning on the upended barrel.
He looked down on the candle and tried to think clearly. He might not
have much time; perhaps not more than a few seconds. The top of the
upended barrel was full of melted wax and wick-stumps. If he failed to
snuff the candle properly, if he just tipped it over, it might burn for
hours, giving the Strigae ample opportunity to see him.
He picked the candle up, turned around, and tossed it out the open
doorway. Then his legs gave way and he slumped down by the upended
barrel in the darkness.
Morlock first became aware that he had closed his eyes from the
sensation of a faint light falling on the lids. His eyes gaped open.
Was it morning already? Was he intact... was there anything of him left?
It didn't seem to be morning. The light was flickering, dim and
bluish-- unlike dawn, or torches.
By its fitful light, Morlock saw a cloud of red worms descending from
the ceiling toward Thelyphron's corpse.
Morlock surged to his feet, screaming, "Get out! I'm still in here,
corpse-chewers!" He leaped onto the corpse-table and, although a wave
of darkness passed before his eyes, he managed to keep his footing and
his consciousness. He pounded on the ceiling and shouted wordlessly.
The red worms withdrew... slowly. But nothing moved up on the roof. He
heard faint whispers. They were waiting. They knew he couldn't last
Morlock glanced desperately out the doorway, hoping to see some sign of
approaching dawn. He didn't, but what he did see caught his full
His vomit was burning.
Morlock carefully stepped down from the corpse table and walked over to
the door. He had not been mistaken. The candle he had thrown out the
door had landed at the edge of the pool of vomit on the path outside,
and now a flickering blue flame was running across the top of the
Morlock knew how to concentrate the spirit of wine many times, to make
a more intoxicating (and flammable) beverage. Perhaps that was what had
been done to the wine from the magic cup. Or perhaps the drug in the
wine was highly flammable...
If it was enough to make his vomit burn, how easily would it burn
without being diluted?
And he had an unlimited supply of it.
Morlock staggered to the barrel to get a fresh candle and the magic
wine-cup. He staggered back to the doorway and bent down to light his
candle from the flickering blue flame. He climbed back up on the corpse
table and, holding the wine cup and candle in one hand, he punched a
hole through the roof with his other.
Morlock stood up, with his head and arms passing through the hole in
the roof to the open air. The light of the candle revealed the Strigae
scattered about the patchy roof of the corpse house. They were like
owls in a way, with great winglike folds of gray hair on either side of
their bodies. But instead of a raptor's claws they each had a single
soft foot, like a snail. And they had no head, or rather their body was
their head: two greenish eyes glowing near the top; a wide toothy mouth
grimacing below, out of which the multibranched red worms of the tongue
issued, hissing like snakes. They retreated out of his reach, but no
"Good night, ladies," cried Morlock, "good night, good night," and
doused the roof and the nearer Strigae with cupfuls of drugged wine.
Then he touched it off with the candle.
Flame leapt from the roof up into the cloudy sky. The Strigae screamed
like screech owls and retreated, off the edge of the roof and out of
The wet wood of the roof burned for an hour before it caved in. By that
time the edge of the sky was gray with dawn.
The world was full of dim gray light when Myrrhina appeared, running
from the fairgrounds to the corpse-house, her lips and face as gray as
She saw Morlock standing by the door and paused.
"I'm all right," he said, answering her unasked question.
"And my Thelyphron?" she whispered.
He nodded toward the corpse-house door. Glancing in, she saw the corpse
was intact and gasped. "But the roof is gone!" she said. "You must
"It was a rough night," he said. "But it's over now. I'll take the
"I don't have it with me," she admitted shame-facedly, looking oddly
like her son.
"Oh?" he said. But it was the way he said it.
"But I'll pay you. Indeed I will, Sir Morlock! I'll swear any binding
oath you ask."
"I'm just asking for the coin."
"I can't get it for you now... the funeral will be soon. The procession
will be here shortly. Will you come to my house after the funeral?"
He looked at her for a few moments. Finally he nodded. "I'll give you
until then," he said.
She flushed and bowed her head gratefully. "Thank you, Sir Morlock! And
now, if you wouldn't mind... the procession will be here shortly, and I
would like a few last moments alone with Thelyphron."
Morlock shrugged his crooked shoulders and nodded indifferently. He'd
drawn the mirror-gates at dawn, and the stream was settling into a
muddy puddle. He helped the fastidious Myrrhina across the threshold
and turned away to give her privacy. He wandered off for a few steps
and kept his back toward the corpse-house. Presently he heard her come
He turned in time to see her smiling at him with her red mouth. Then
she turned away and hurried toward the fairground, where the funeral
procession was already forming up.
He stared after her thoughtfully. A few moments with Thelyphron had
certainly put the roses back into her lips. Her cheeks had seemed
A dark suspicion stabbed him through the heart. He rushed back into the
Thelyphron's nose had been eaten away, along with large stretches of
his cheeks and chin. The red cavities of gnawed flesh glared out at
Morlock, in contrast with the wax-white flesh around them.
Myrrhina must have done it, Morlock realized, but why? Why hire him to
go through this rigamarole, if she was a Striga herself? Or had it been
a Striga disguised as Myrrhina...?
It didn't matter. They had won. And he thought he could hear the
funeral procession approaching. If they caught him here they would
mutilate him, as Thelyphron had been mutilated. And if he ran, Myrrhina
would never pay him the crow-coin, and it would all be for nothing...
He slumped down in despair by the overturned barrel, where the last of
his candles was guttering in a pool of its own wax.
Morlock was waiting on the steps of Myrrhina's house at noon when she
and Zatchlas returned from Thelyphron's funeral. Zatchlas drew up short
when he saw him, but Myrrhina did not seem surprised.
"Sir Morlock, good day," she carolled. "I suppose you have come for
"Zatchlas, perhaps you have something to do around town? Sir Morlock
and I have a few things to discuss."
Zatchlas turned on his heel and walked away.
"Poor boy," said Myrrhina warmly, reaching into a pocket for her
housekey. Morlock, glancing down, saw that her pocket had a number of
interesting things in it, including Thelyphron's nose. "You set him
back badly with the Sisterhood last night."
"You are both Strigae," Morlock said flatly.
"Well," Myrrhina said, as she unlocked the house-door and led the way
in, "I am, and he aspires to be. We are mostly Strigae in this town. We
fly at night and walk during the day, you see."
"I don't," Morlock said, following her. "If you are a Striga, why
didn't you just bite Thelyphron's nose off yesterday and have done with
"Oh! That would be against the rules. The family of a dead person don't
have a chance at him until at least a night has passed after his death."
"Oh, it may seem cruel," Myrrhina continued, leading Morlock into an
inner room with a strongbox. "But, otherwise, as soon as a family
member died, his own family would chew him down to the bone, and no one
else would ever get a mouthful. So this is really fairer. Don't you
"No," Morlock admitted. "Yesterday you seemed genuinely concerned about
"I was. I am. We meant a great deal to each other. But: he's dead. And
you can't imagine how useful a dead man's nose is in certain kids of
binding magic, or how rare it is around here. I thought I'd just risk
biting it off, since you gave me the opportunity. Although it was a bit
of a wrench: I'd have been the first widow in fifty years to bury her
husband intact. What a mark of status that is in the Sisterhood!
Although, as far as anyone else in town knows, that's exactly what
happened." She put a brown hand over her red mouth to hide a slightly
hysterical laugh. When she had calmed herself, she lowered the hand
again and said, "Morlock: may I ask you a question?"
"You haven't paid me my coin yet."
She opened the strongbox with her doorkey, reached inside it and drew
out the crow-coin. She flipped it over to Morlock who snapped it out of
the air and tucked it in his own pocket.
"How did you do it? I sat through the entire funeral, staring at
Thelyphron's nose on his face and fingering it in my pocket. No one
else realized, I think--of course, they knew they
mutilated him. If I hadn't bitten the nose off personally I would have
been sure Thelyphron's corpse was intact. How did you do it?"
"Candle-wax. I happened to notice the wax of the candles was exactly
the same color as Thelyphron's skin. I had a good deal of it from all
the candles I had burned. So I modelled patches for Thelyphron's face
out of the melted candle-wax."
"It's a good thing we buried him before the sun got warm, then. Still,
the likeness was superb, and you couldn't have had much time. You
really are a gifted maker of things, Morlock."
"You don't like me much, do you?"
"Not today. Yesterday you were all right, I guess."
"Well, I'm still most grateful. I could do a good deal for you, besides
just giving you that coin."
Morlock shrugged his crooked shoulders.
"Of course, the crow-king will give you a wish," she said earnestly.
"But only one, and he'll do his best to cheat you. I'd never cheat you,
"You want me to watch your corpse after your death-- is that it?"
She laughed harshly. "I'm afraid it wouldn't do much good." She pulled
her nose off and showed it to Morlock. "When I was a teenager, my best
friend died. I couldn't bear the thought of her being mutilated, so I
agreed to sit the vigil. They got more of me than my nose... But I've
shocked you," the noseless woman said gently.
Morlock shrugged impatiently. "I see that you are good at seeming. It
goes with the life you lead. As for me, I am what I am."
"Goodbye, then, Morlock," said the noseless woman.
Morlock turned away and left the house. He took the shortest road out
of the town. When he had come to open country, he took the coin out of
The crowlike bird with the crown on its head still adorned the golden
coin. Its eye looked at Morlock expectantly.
Glancing around, he saw that the fields about him were black with
crows-- hundreds of crows, thousands.
Morlock took the coin in both hands and said a word, known to
those-who-know. He cracked the coin like an egg and out of it flew a
full-sized (in fact, rather large) black crow.
The golden shell faded until it resembled the fingernails of a dead
man. Morlock dropped it and ground it into the dust.
Looking up he saw the great black bird he had released standing in the
field in front of him. It wore no crown, but there was no mistaking its
regal quality; the other crows stood around their king in ragged
concentric circles: murder on murder of crows in attendance on their
newly released king.
Morlock met the king's black inquisitive eye and said, "Are you still
here? I'd think you'd want to stretch your wings."
The crow-king cawed a question.
"No, I don't want anything," Morlock said. "A crow did me a favor once;
now he's dead. This is my repayment."
The crow-king cawed again, more imperiously.
"That's up to you," said Morlock dismissively.
The great crow looked at him for a few moments, then hopped up into the
air and flew off. The air was full of crow-wings for a while, and then
they were all gone, the murders flying in different directions, dark
clouds disappearing in distant skies.
Morlock walked off into the empty lands. He thought he was alone, but
many eyes, Striga-green and crow-black, watched him as he went his way.
The Red Worm's Way by James Enge is licensed under a Creative
Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States