Roji Hafu loved his father.
His father had raised him alone after his mother had died in childbirth. He had always been kind to Roji, never resentful or cruel. He had punished Roji occasionally, but only to show him right from wrong. He had taught Roji everything Roji knew about foraging, fishing, hunting, herb-lore and pottery. Roji’s father had been a potter, pottering happily through life with nary a care despite near destitution. He had always scraped by, and he had been content with nothing more than a leaky roof over his head, a little food on his table, his business and his son. He had even begun flirting with the local herbalist of late, and Roji had begun to harbour secret hopes that his father might marry again. Roji had never seen him get into a fist-fight and could count the number of occasions he had heard his father raise his voice on one hand, despite having lived with him for fifteen years.
So, he could not for the life of him understand why his father had come at him one day with a sharp metal scraper he used to inscribe designs on his ceramics.
Sitting on the rug-laden stone floor of their small terraced house, Roji stared at his father’s body, clutching his knees to his chest and rocking back and forth. Blood still dripped from his father’s severed jugular where the scraper was jammed into his neck. Roji could still recall the sensation as he jammed it in there. He still had his father’s blood on his golden-skinned hands, warm but rapidly cooling.
He was bleeding himself, his olive trousers and grey wool tunic stained by spreading crimson. His father had cut him twice with the scraper before Roji had finally managed to disarm him, once on the left leg and once on the right arm. The wounds throbbed hotly, bees seeking attention. Roji ignored them, his wide eyes fixed on his father, his face contorted into an expression of horror by what he had done. Even after Roji had disarmed the older man, his father had still hurled himself at his son with animal-like wild abandon, clutching at his long dark hair, clawing at him with his nails, grappling with him and trying to seize hold of his neck and choke the life out of him. Roji stretched his bruised neck at the remembrance.
He had had no choice but to defend himself, Roji assured himself time and again, while another voice in his head whispered, ‘Murderer!’
He had no idea how long he sat there, but by the time he stirred he had to scrub the coagulated blood off his arms with a cloth and cold water from a bucket. He glanced around at his and his father’s little shack one last time, taking in the finished and half-finished pots, the tools, the workbench, the clay, the purple-and-white flowers, the twin beds and the dining table where he and his father had eaten together almost every night of his life. He avoided looking at the body again. He strapped on his sandals and stumbled outside in a daze.
Bright moonlight scored his eyes, and he winced and blinked, only now realising he had been sitting in darkness before. The cobbled street was eerily empty, even for night-time, and screams echoed across Ganshei town, sharp as the pin-prick stars. Roji glanced around for a moment vapidly, hardly able to think straight, and then staggered off towards his friend’s place nearby. He only knew he did not want to be alone. He did not notice the bloodstains in the dark.
When he rounded a corner and came in sight of his friend’s house, a carpenter’s home, he saw that people were scrapping in the street and banging on the doors, all of them grunting and howling like feral animals, venting inarticulate frenzy. He stopped and ogled the scene as one man beat down a woman to his left and another gouged out the eyes of a man to his right. The attackers’ eyes were wide in the moonlight, and Roji thought he saw yellow veins marbling the whites.
Instinctively, he hid in the shadows behind a stack of crates beside one of the rundown houses on the right. When the eye-gouger moved away, leaving the man whose eyes he had gouged lying still and silent, Roji snuck around the crates and, sticking to the shadows beneath the cornices, crept along the street. He had thought about turning around and going back home, but he could not stomach the idea.
When the street became so thronged that it was almost impossible to avoid notice, Roji straightened from his crouch lest he draw attention and walked quickly towards the carpentry shop. Fortunately for him, most of the people in the street were too intent on pummelling one another with grunts of wrath and pounding on doors to register his presence. One couple were busy having noisy sex in the middle of the street, careless of observers.
He almost made it to his friend’s place without being noticed.
As he drew near, however, a couple – a man and a woman – slamming their fists into the door and screaming angrily spotted him. They bared their teeth at him like beasts, snarling and spitting and screeching, and pelted towards him. Wondering why they had not done so already, Roji vaulted the fence adjoining his friend’s house to the adjacent one and landed in an overgrown back alley between the tenements. He heard the couple scrabbling up the fence behind him with his heart in his mouth.
Running around the back of the carpentry shop, he began knocking violently on the back door, thanking the Ancestors that it was clear. “Fushan! Fwong! Fushan! Open up! It’s me – Roji! Open up, please! It’s Roji! They’re coming! They’re coming! They’re gonna get me, Fushan!”
The door snapped open, an arm reached out and hauled him inside. The door slammed shut, and a moment later bodies could be heard thumping into it. Then, the arrhythmic pounding began again alongside inarticulate howling. Flustered, Roji found himself pinned to the wall by Fwong, while Fushan looked on, clutching a knife.
“Are you really yourself?” Fwong demanded roughly, his stubbly jowls quivering, his broad wart of a nose almost touching Roji’s own. “What are you doing here, Roji?”
Struggling to breathe past the forearm rammed into his neck, his skinny beardless face turning purple, Roji squeaked, “My father went crazy and the whole town has gone crazy, and … and I was just so scared! I didn’t know what to do or where to go, so I just came here!”
The forearm relaxed a little, and Roji sucked in air gratefully.
“You brought them round to our back door, you fool!” Fwong snarled nevertheless. “Now, there’s no way out of here thanks to you!”
Sobbing, Roji tried to stammer out an apology, but Fwong just stepped back with a disgusted sigh and Roji slumped down to the floor, weeping.
“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! I don’t know what’s going on! Everyone has gone crazy and … and my father is dead! He’s dead! I don’t know what’s going on! I’m so sorry!”
Fwong the carpenter’s harsh expression softened a little at that, and he rubbed a hand over his tonsured head. Fushan, Fwong’s son and Roji’s friend, slowly moved to Roji’s side and crouched by him, laying a hand on his shoulder. He still held the knife, though, Roji noted.
“I’m sorry to hear about your father, Roji,” said Fushan. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through. He was a good man.”
“What is going on, Fushan?” Roji asked, sniffling as he tried to stifle his sobs.
Fushan sighed, brushing his short, wavy black hair out of his eyes “We don’t know any more than you do really. It’s like you said – everyone has gone crazy. My father went out for a drink earlier in the evening and was attacked on his way home. He had to beat off several people just to make it back to me, and we’ve been stuck in here for a few hours now with people banging on the door the whole time.”
“Why didn’t you sneak out the back?”
“And go where?” replied Fushan. “This is our home. Where else would we be safe?”
“I saw a lot of crazy people out there,” Roji replied, calming as sense returned to him. “I think people have lost their marbles all over town. We have to get out of Ganshei, find the Burgomaster at the next town and tell him what’s happened!”
Fushan looked to his father, and Fwong tapped a finger on his chin thoughtfully. “It is actually a good idea,” he said eventually. “I’ve been trying to think of a way to get Fushan to safety. I was thinking about the guards’ barracks, but we’re closer to the edge of town than the centre. I think you’re right, Roji. We should get out of town as soon as possible.”
Equipped with a plan, some supplies, wool-lined coats, whittling knives and a hatchet, the three of them talked through their route in case they got separated and then gathered together at the back door.
“Are you ready?” asked Fwong.
Roji’s pulse raced, but he nodded. So did Fushan, wiping a clammy hand on his tunic.
Fwong hesitated, his hand on the door handle. “Listen to me, boys. We are going to have to cut down anyone who gets in our way. You understand that, don’t you?”
Again, they nodded.
“And … it is not murder,” said Fwong. “You should not feel guilty for what you are about to do. I want us all to survive. So do what is necessary to survive and I will not judge you. No one will judge you. Please, just … survive. Do whatever it takes. Understood?”
Again, they nodded.
Fwong nodded too, a sad look on his face for their impending loss of innocence. “You say there were only two of them, Roji?”
“Fushan,” beckoned Fwong, “come stand by me and take the person on the left. Stab them in the chest or belly as hard as you can, understood?”
“And if there are more than two out there,” Fwong continued, hefting his hatchet, “then we will back up and let them inside. In close quarters, we can keep them from surrounding us and pick them off one by one until our way out is clear. Understood?”
“Yes,” said Roji and Fushan in harmony.
Fwong nodded again and blew out a sigh. “Excellent. Then, let’s do it. Three, two, one …”
He wrenched the door open quickly, and the couple that had been chasing Roji came staggering in, off-balance from having been leaning on the wood. Fwong’s hatchet clumsily clove in the man on the right’s collarbone, inflicting enough damage to knock him out of the fight; after the briefest yelp as the blade dug in, the sable-haired man in the overalls collapsed, unconscious. Meanwhile, the woman on the left had half-landed on Fushan, almost bearing him down with her abrupt weight. Catching her instinctively, he could not then easily stab her without falling down. He called for help. She began gnashing her teeth inches from his nose and clawing at him with sharp fingernails, leaving red tracks on his arms and face, and his cries intensified.
Fwong yanked the woman off his son by her hair and slammed her face-first into the wall with a crunch. “Let’s go,” he whispered, seeing that their way was clear.
The three of them snuck out into the night with the sickle moon grinning down on them sadistically between clods of cloud. Roji had not noticed earlier in his state of stupefaction, but a chill roamed the night, nipping at his flesh. He was glad of the coat Fwong had given him. Wandering through the back-alley between the houses, they came across nobody, but soon they reached the end of the alley and gazed out at a street swarming with rampaging simpletons. As though everybody in the little town of Ganshei had lost their minds, they were all running around screaming and brawling and stabbing and rutting and killing. Blood flecked every surface in sight, running in rivulets down the cobbled street. Roji licked his lips and flexed his fingers on the handle of the six-inch iron knife he carried.
“We’re going to have to make a run for it, boys,” whispered Fwong, glancing this way and that at all the mayhem unfolding before his eyes. “Stick close to me and cut down anything in your way. Let’s go!”
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