“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t."
—Hamlet (Act II, scene ii)
What was left of the man shambled into the dark alley, and I followed. I had little choice.
I am a chasseur, a hunter. What I hunt are those whose souls are controlled by another. I call them the tibonage. You’d call them zombies.
Yes, they exist. All over the damn place.
Tonight, they existed in Southwark, and it was my job to make sure they didn’t crack open someone’s head and make a feast of their brains. The only way to do that was to kill them first.
The tibonage dragged his feet through the muck, intent on something in the distance. This is the nature of zombies. They are raised for a reason; they have a mission. Nothing will stop them from completing it.
“Halt!” I shouted.
The tibonage didn’t even glance my way.
Definitely on a mission. Weren’t we all?
I hurried after, careful to remain far enough away that the zombie couldn’t spin and grab me. Although they’re the walking dead, the tibonage are faster than one might think, and if prevented from completing their assignments, they fight like baited bears.
As soon as I came within a sword’s length, I planted my feet and drew my weapon, wincing when the slick slide sliced through the still air.
The tibonage froze, then slowly he turned.
I should have cut off his head right then. If I had, I never would have seen his face in the silvery glow of the moon.
Instead, I whispered, “Chalmers?”
One of our servants. He’d died only last week.
Hair still well-groomed, nails too, skin a wee bit gray but not terribly so. There wasn’t a hole in him anywhere there shouldn’t be. I’d have thought him alive if it weren’t for the smell.
He was very, very dead.
The zombie yanked me close, his teeth clacking together inches from my nose.
I dropped the sword and shoved against his chest. Beneath my palms, his skin squirmed. A maggot peeked past the collar of his dusty doublet and winked.
“ Erk!” I jerked my hands away.
This only allowed the tibonage to pull me even closer.
“Br-br-br,” he chanted, in between the clicking of teeth. “Mmmm,” he growled low. “Mmmm.”
He obviously hadn’t had his daily supply of br-br-br-
“Brains,” I snapped, annoyed at both myself for not killing him and him for being unable to articulate a simple word. “If you could say brains, you might actually possess enough of them to get some.”
Talking to a zombie was almost as foolish as wrestling one. I’m strong, but zombies are stronger. I’m not sure why.
Perhaps there was something in the way they were raised that gave them certain powers. For instance, remaining unharmed through everything but decapitation and fire. That, combined with superior strength, meant the only advantage I had was that my brains could be used for something other than stuffing between my ears.
I lifted my knee, fast and hard. If his choked shriek was any indication, his balls now had an intimate acquaintance with his throat.
He let me go. He didn’t have much choice. He was on the ground, clutching his privates and keening. I rescued my sword, then I returned Chalmers to God.
The man had always been overly tall, so even on his knees his head was nearly level with mine. As a result, when he burst into ashes, I got a face-full. Then I couldn’t see.
Which was the only excuse for what happened next. When the shuffle that sounded behind me was followed by a touch on my shoulder, I reacted. Two hands on the hilt of my sword, I swung, and I connected.
Blood washed the ashes from my face.
“Oh,” I whispered. “N-n-n-no.”
I sounded like a zombie. But I wasn’t, and neither was the man who tumbled to the muck-strewn cobblestones. If he had been, such a wound would not have bothered him in the least.
I fell to my knees as my victim’s eyes fluttered closed, and I sat there until the blood from the slice in his neck stopped flowing. Then I laid my palm against his chest, but the heart beneath no longer beat; his skin had already cooled.
Should I search out the authorities and attempt to explain?
A half laugh, half sob escaped my throat. “Excuse me, there is a dead man in the alley. But I didn’t mean to slit his throat, sirrah. Oh no, I meant to cut off his head.”
I lifted trembling fingers, meaning to rub at the pain in the center of my forehead, but when I saw the blood I let my arm drop back to my side.
“Who would have thought he could have so much blood in him?” I whispered. “Will I ever be able to wash my hands clean?”
The stranger was dead. The only way to bring him back would be to ferret out someone who could raise him. But then he would be a zombie—his soul in thrall to another. I doubted this man, whoever he was, would thank me for that.
No, better to leave him where he lay. At least his soul was already with God.
“Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war.”
—Julius Caesar (Act III, scene i)
The evening began the same as so many others. Will tried to write. He didn’t have much luck.
Because his writing of late was not writing at all. Of late, his writing was mostly staring.
Which was why he’d begun staying at the Rose Theatre after his final curtain. Being alone in his living quarters from midnight to dawn, with only a full quill and an empty page for company, had nearly driven him mad. Though many would say he had been traveling that path for some time now.
Will glanced up from the table, happy for a diversion. Any diversion. “What is it, Edmond?”
A few people still milled about the theater, but many had left. Most of the candles had been blown out, and shadows reigned. Even if he hadn’t already recognized the squat, fantastically round silhouette weaving toward him at an alarming pace, Will would have known the voice, which was high and childlike despite the man’s bulk.
Wait. Was Edmond attempting to run? Edmond never ran. When he did, church bells rang of their own accord, and small buildings tumbled down.
Something dreadful must have happened to cause Edmond not only to move faster than a three-legged mule but entice him to drink so much he could barely remain on his feet.
Not that Edmond didn’t drink. On the contrary, he did so daily and to excess, but his most important responsibility was to remain at the Rose through the night, on guard against any who might harm it. Therefore, he usually waited to imbibe until midday.
As the man stumbled closer, and the floor beneath them wobbled, Will noticed something amiss. Edmond had a crack in his head, and blood poured down his face.
Will’s stomach clenched sickeningly, and he had to look away for an instant or embarrass himself. But he was a strong man—if the term man was taken loosely enough—and he managed to keep himself under control.
“What has happened?” Will asked. “Did you take a fall?”
Instead of answering, Edmond weaved left, then right, then dropped straight forward like a downed tree.
Will had no time to get out of the way, no time to do anything but grab Edmond, lift him bodily, then set him upright.
“Marry.” Will glanced around to make certain no one had seen him perform that inhuman feat. Edmond had to weigh nigh on twenty stone. By rights, the man should have crushed Will like a bug.
Praise the saints no one was about, and Edmond was too drunk to remember. Even now he swayed, eyes closed against the steady stream of blood that washed down his forehead and dripped off the end of his nose.
“Edmond!” Will gave him a sharp shake. Droplets flew, spattering against Will’s doublet. One struck his chin. The scent drifted upward, and suddenly Will’s teeth itched.
Right then he nearly broke the vow he’d made so long ago. Would have, if the man’s eyes had not snapped open and stared into his.
“Sir!” Edmond stepped back, tripping over his own feet and nearly falling again.
However, when Will reached out to help, Edmond cringed.
“Beshrew me.” Will was usually much better at acting human than this.
He thought about puppies and lambs, just-sprung flowers and saplings, blue skies, fluffy clouds, and the bright, blinding light of the sun—anything to make the scent and the sight of Edmond’s blood fade from his mind.
It didn’t work.
Will would never forget the smell, the texture, the ruby red sheen— Ah hell, be honest. No matter how often he drank wine, he would never forget the exquisite flavor of blood.
But he could control himself. Sometimes it just took a while.
Eventually, Will wiped that single droplet from his chin and made use of the strength he’d acquired over centuries of un-life to force the howling monster within him back down. The beast subsided at last, though there was grumbling and arguing and pain. There always was.
Will spun, and Edmond promptly fell on his arse. The floor gave with a sharp crack.
“Sorry, sir,” Edmond murmured.
“Oh, get up!” Coddling the man wasn’t working. “Tell me what happened, and be quick.”
Edmond lumbered to his feet. Something in Will’s eyes had frightened him, but he still took orders better than most. Edmond could no more refuse to do what he was told than he could give up his daily portion of ale.
Will expected the usual tale of woe. Edmond had played cards and lost. He had not broken his fast for two weeks, yet he’d gained two stone. A woman had scorned him. Such tragedies happened quite often with Edmond, and usually resulted in just this type of behavior. But always after his duty to the Rose was complete.
“I saw a dead man walking, sir.”
Will nearly fell over himself. “A what?”
“A dead man, he was.”
“And—and—” Will cleared his throat, then tried to speak once more. “H-h-how did you know this?”
“The dead have a certain look.”
Will ran his hand over his face. Some did.
“Hair grown long and.” Edmond wiggled his fat fingers by his head, giving the impression of worms instead of hair.
“Unkempt?” Will supplied.
Edmond clapped his hands together beneath his third chin. “My Lord, you always know the perfect word.”
“Not lately,” Will muttered. At Edmond’s curious expression, he shook his head. “Go on.” Though he knew all too well what Edmond would say.
“His fingernails were ...” Edmond frowned as he stared at his own, which were dirty and yellowed.
“Some.” Edmond continued to frown. “Others were broken and filthy, as if he’d clawed his way out of the grave. And his toes—” Edmond shuddered.
“Aye?” Will encouraged. “What about his toes?”
“His feet were bare, and the nails of his toes tapped against the stones of the street. The noise, sir, ’twas horrible.”
“I can imagine.” Though he didn’t have to. He’d heard it himself, thousands of times before, with his own overly keen ears.
“The flesh was gray and pocked,” Edmond continued, “his eyes empty of life. What clothing remained on his person hung in tatters and was covered in dust and dirt. The parts of his—” Edmond paused, pursed his lips, then whispered conspiratorially, “nakedness that could be seen had sores and—” Edmond winced. “Bugs. Nigh put me off my dinner, it did.”
“I’d like to see something that could put you off your dinner,” said a new voice.
Several of the stage crew had become bored with their dice game and now listened with obvious amusement to Edmond’s account.
“Make yourself useful,” Will said. “Find the man a cloth to staunch his wound.”
Instead of scattering like the vultures they were, one of them held out a grimy handkerchief.
Will snatched it up and set it against Edmond’s head, careful not to touch anything but the cloth. He had fantastic control, but there was no need to poke at the beast.
“How’d you get that knock on yer noggin’?” Arthur Cartwright asked.
“I thought the gentleman was ill,” Edmond said. “I wanted to help.”
Will patted Edmond’s arm. He might be a drunk, but he was a sweet drunk. Will had known that even before he’d caught the scent of the man’s blood.
Fie! Will scolded himself. Focus on the problem and forget everything else!
Easier thought than accomplished, especially with blood all over Edmond’s face, neck, and now hands.
“ ’Twas a trap, weren’t it? The Jack robbed ye, he did. After he slammed yer head—” Arthur paused. “Where did he slam yer head?”
“Against the wall of a church!” Edmond’s voice was aghast. “He was obviously a fiend from hell.”
“Obviously,” Will said. “Pray continue. What then?”
“He smacked me again and again as if he were tryin’ to open my skull, and all the while he gurgled a word I had some trouble makin’ out.”
“What word?” Will asked, but he knew.
“I could have sworn, sir”—Edmond paused, lowering the cloth from his head so he could meet Will’s eyes—“that he was chantin’ ‘brains.’”
Aye, he was.
“His teeth were snappin’ together as if he’d eat his way right through my skull. Then he started makin’ yummy sounds.”
“Yummy sounds,” Will repeated.
“Mmmm,” Edmond said, rubbing his stomach for emphasis. “Mmmmmmmm!”
Laughter erupted again, and Edmond flinched. His shoulders hunched as he lifted the now-red cloth and hid his face from their mirth.
“Why would anyone want to crack open yer head and eat yer brains?” Arthur asked. “Can’t be much of a meal.”
Will wanted to put a stop to the harassment, but he needed the distraction. He soothed his conscience by assuring himself he would send a doctor to tend Edmond’s head.
Just as soon as he found the zombie.
Will slipped backward as the onlookers tightened their circle around the bleeding man.
“Ye see a lot of dead folks?” Arthur asked.
Edmond considered. “Never afore today.”
Hallelujah! Maybe there was only one.
Except there was never only one.
“Ye didn’t see any today either,” Arthur continued. “Someone tried to rob ye, fool. They banged yer head against a building.”
“Church!” Edmond insisted stubbornly.
“Church,” Arthur agreed. “And when they found ye had nothing to offer but evil-smelling breath, they smacked ye again and left ye to bleed.”
Confusion spread over Edmond’s face. He was starting to doubt. “Pure evil I saw in his eyes. He was not human.”
“Neither are you.”
More laughter erupted, drowning out Edmond’s response, as Will reached the front entrance and became one with the night.
He knew how things would progress whilst he was away. The others would attempt to convince Edmond that he had not seen what he had, and by morning, when the man awoke with a headache to rival the ones he received from too much ale, he would believe them.
Human beings were very good at rationalizing. Will wished he still had the ability. Unfortunately, he was one of the things humans rationalized about.
He could attempt to explain Edmond’s attack as being made by a sick man desperately needing coin. If it hadn’t been for the word brains.
And the yummy sounds.
Simply put, what Edmond had seen on the streets of London was a zombie.
Will should know. In times past, he was the one who had raised them.
His feet led him to the nearest church, where he checked the stone for traces of Edmond’s blood but found none. Which meant there was none to be found. If Will was good at one other thing, besides writing and acting, it was catching the scent or the sight of blood.
He moved on. He very nearly passed right by Southwark Cathedral without pausing. In Will’s mind, a cathedral and a church were two very different things, and Southwark Cathedral was very different indeed.
The oldest place of worship in London, the site had been home to some form of church since A.D. 606. Rumor had it that there’d been a pagan Roman temple there before that. As Will had been here when the Romans came, he knew the rumor to be true.
However, as he hurried by, gaze flicking from alley to street and back again, searching for the telltale shamble that signaled zombie, he caught the scent of blood.
He found splashes of red all over the place—on the cornerstone, the cobblestones, then in a weaving trail toward the Rose.
Will checked the street again. He expected to find no one else about but him, perhaps a thief or two. Instead, the long shadow of a man spread across the road three buildings up. He walked the way zombies walk, as though all of the outhouses in England were full, and he badly needed one empty.
Will hurried in that direction. The zombie was up to no good. They always were. Such creatures would mindlessly continue to follow the orders of the one who made them. Will could chop off their arms, their legs. He could chop them in half, and both halves would continue to drag themselves toward their ultimate goal. To stop a zombie with a sword, one had to lop off its head.
Not that Will had ever done so. The creatures he’d made had turned to dust on the battlefields of England, Rome, and Scotland for the Henries, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth. Will had raised them; they’d fought; he’d been paid. When the war was won, those left were dispatched, but not by him.
He was sorry for the raising now. So many had died. But when he’d been newly made, with a bright, endless future but no funds, the idea had seemed like a good one. It was only later that he saw how very bad an idea it was. Ideas were so often like that.
Will had an affinity for the dead. The talent was not something he’d gained upon becoming one of them, but something he’d had since he was born.
The first time.
Will had been labeled an insane child, a lunatic youth. Talking to empty air was not something one did in the years before the birth of Christ, or in the centuries thereafter. Explaining that he saw dead people, could talk to them, and they talked back, had been a foolish choice on his part.
Will had managed to avoid being burned for a witch, but it had been a very close thing. Forsooth, joining the ranks of the undead when he was six-and-twenty had been a relief.
He no longer had to hide anything but himself from the light.
He was able to fit in amongst the living so much better now that he was dead. He need only behave “normally,” for the most part, during the darkest hours, and humans were not at their best then. They were meant to walk in the light.
Add to this Will’s profession—being a player was the perfect occupation for one such as he. Actors were known to be strange. Amongst them, Will was no more odd than any other.
And if he spoke to empty rooms and deserted corners, those in his company believed the habit a quirk of his genius. He merely spoke to his characters, practiced dialogue, perfected stage movements before he wrote them down.
In such beliefs they were largely correct. Will did speak to his characters. However, sometimes his characters talked back.
He’d known Henry—all of them—along with Richard, Macbeth, and his insane wife too. Now that they were dead, each and every one wanted him to tell their stories.
He didn’t mind, but he had his own stories to set on the page as well. He just hadn’t been able to do so of late. Not only had his muse gone silent, but his cursed ghosts too. He had begun to wonder if any of them—muse or ghosts—would ever come back and what he would do if they did not. Perhaps walk straight into the morning sun.
Despite the darkness, Will saw the zombie without any trouble. This was not the same creature that had tried to crack Edmond’s head like an egg but one so new it could have been taken for the living. Because of the shambling and the moaning, the zombie could easily be labeled a plague victim, probably would be by most, but Will knew better.
As he hurried to catch up, a figure detached from the shadows. Will tensed, expecting it to move like a zombie, groan like a zombie, attempt murder like a zombie. Instead, the new arrival seemed to float, graceful as a swan on the royal pond, slim as one of the reeds that lined the shores.
Black cap, black doublet, black breeches, even black boots— small wonder he hadn’t detected the boy. The lad blended into the night better than Will did.
Will opened his mouth to call out, to stop the slight, slim figure from getting too close. But the telltale swish of a sword leaving its scabbard had Will snapping his mouth shut so quickly he narrowly missed eating his tongue.
Reaching for his own sword as he stepped into the alley, Will cursed when he didn’t find it. He’d left the weapon at the Rose.
Though most young men always went out with both a sword and a dagger, especially in Southwark, Will did not. He had no need. Killing Will Shakespeare was beyond the capabilities of most humans.
Will did have his dagger on his belt, more for show than anything else, but he didn’t bother to retrieve it. Beheading is much harder than one might think. To cleave a head from the shoulders, a dagger would be of little use.
But Will’s bare hands were a deadly weapon. Though he was an actor and a writer by trade, and therefore did not appear strong, Will was almost as much of a monster as the one he’d followed here. Wresting free the head would be a simple enough task.
Hideous and disgusting. But simple.
However, upon entering the alley, Will discovered he needn’t have worried. Ashes as thick as a locust plague floated through the air.
Will was so impressed that the boy had already dispatched the corpse, he strode forward and put his hand on the lad’s shoulder. He should have known better. Anyone who’d been confronted by the walking dead would be understandably overwrought. The child was no exception.
He spun on nimble feet, slicing Will’s neck from ear to ear.