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Following Instructions

August 2, 2013

I so enjoyed the world and feel I created with last week’s flash fiction challenge that I wanted to write further into it with this week’s. The cards seemed stacked in my favour – fitting ‘random’ items like an iron horseshoe, leather mask, animal skull, road sign or child’s toy into this steampunk/western world I’ve stumbled into? Easy.  Perfect.

So I thought.

This story was easy to visualise – I can play it like a film reel in my head, appropriately grainy and with colours muted, but story flowing.  It was near impossible to write.  I had two possible starting points and far too much backstory butting into the single scene I wanted.  I could easily have stretched this out to pages, but I’ve only got 1000 words.  I’ve rewritten it and reorganised it several times, and the deadline’s fast approaching.  As a result of all this, Instructions is hastily written, and one of my longest flash pieces at 820 words.  But hopefully, still works as a standalone piece, and enjoyable.

Crows

 

Instructions

 

The servant stares down the shaking barrel of the shotgun and into the wild eyes of the man that aims it.  Black pupil and too much white.  Sun-baked Sand Rat.

“Hold it,” the thug growls.  He blinks hard.  Sweat makes tracks down his dirt-crusted face, over a holy brand on his cheek. He takes a crouching sideways step closer, trying to see under the servant’s wide-brimmed hat .  “Cleansin’s not completed yet.”

A gust of air escapes from under the steer-skull-and-leather mask that stands in for the servant’s face. Glassy lenses set into the skull’s eye sockets reflect the thug and his cronies creeping up to flank them.

Two instructions, his master had given him.  Three words each.  Simpler in saying than in execution, as it turns out.

The first: deliver the letter.  That was more or less done.  The servant had ridden far out into the Barrenlands, so far that his horse had started creaking from lack of oil, and then further again to this faded and forgotten town.  It had come to expect a cold reception while out doing its master’s work, but when it arrived it had to take a pause.  Pull the envelope from inside its coat, and hold it up against the dust-blasted lettering on the road sign.  To double-check that the markings matched, before it rode on in over the indifferent dead lining the road.  They’re all shot full of holes, and covered in blood turned to brown rust in the dusty wind.  A crow screamed, cursing the intrusion, and fluttered down to the feast.  The first carrion-eater of many.

The address led him to the general store.  A man blocked the doorway, fallen over a shotgun he never got to fire.  The servant crouched down, and turned the body over.  A stout and weathered man, grey hair and trimmed beard.  Vacant eyes behind cracked spectacles.  The servant sighed, and tucked the letter into the bloody vest.  Then it heard a little creaking noise from inside.

Which brought it to the second instruction.  Boots crunching over shattered glass, it stepped over the corpse and into the cool dark of the shop.  Around the counter, a woman, all dusted in flour, slumped in front of the cupboards there.  Her hands were clamped around a bled-out belly wound.  The servant crouched down again, creaking at the knees.  Heard a shuffling.  The doors were inlaid with buckshot and painted with blood, but it’s tough old wood, and solid.  It pushed the body aside, opened the door, and  reached in.  One leather gloved hand closed around a stick of an arm, and drew it out along with the little girl and fierce shrieking it was attached to.  She hollered and kicked at the skull mask as the servant hauled her out and held her up to scan her face.  More tear-stained and tooth-bared than the image it recalled, but this was the one.  Paying no mind to the pummelling ball-bearing fists, it carried her back out into the glare.

Where this brainwashed Sand Rat and his shotgun were now trying to prevent it from fulfilling that second instruction.

“Boss says we gotta make sure this town’s purged good and proper.”  His darting eyes flick to the little girl.

The servant plants her down behind itself,  one gloved hand gripping her coat-rack shoulder.  She’s stopped squirming now though.

“Get out of my way!” the Sand Rat jabs at them with the gun muzzle.  The servant doesn’t blink.  Can’t.  “I ain’t never seen you before, but I got no problem sending you to the Fire along with the rest of this tainted filth!”

Cogs whir in the servant’s head.   Retrieve the child.  A whole lot of tasks were coded into those three words.  A whole lot of actions could be sanctioned.  The cogs click, and stop.

It pushes the child to the ground and fills its hands instead with a pair of pistols pulled from under its coat.  It puts a bullet between the eyes of the Sand Rat and ducks the dead man’s reflex blast.  With mechanical precision it moves, sights, and executes the henchmen before they get a chance to return fire.  The last shot rings off into the crows’ cawing; disturbed from their glut they fuss and fall silent again.

The steer skull swings left and right.  The carrion birds are the only things that move now.  The child is gone.

The servant spies her in the doorway of the store, whimpering over the body of the man there, holding the delivered letter .  With a grunt, the servant strides over and plucks her up.  Ignores her wailing and pries the blood soaked envelope from her matchstick fingers, trading it for a rag dolly drawn from another pocket.  She sniffs and falls silent.  Clutching the toy like a tether in a sandstorm, she lets the servant lift her up into the saddle.

It hauls on the reins and turns the iron horse around, pointing it home.

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