It was late evening on a warm summer day, with the wind from the sea taking the heat off the long-hanging sun as John Magnus and his boy came to Carradin, along the coast road with the Irish Sea on his right hand, which had been built up over the years so that on the right the grassy slope went quickly to the rocks and sand and tall grasses of the beach, and on the left darker grasses ran down to a briny mere, where the tall stumps of a drowned forest stood up for a way.
Before the village on the left-hand side of the road was a bulluan stone, a mossy thing with a cup-shaped hole worn in it from some long ago, and John Magnus stopped to give a lesson and a lecture about their history and their use. The boy for his part stood at attention and gave his most attentive ear as he soaked up the little bits of lore, despite the way he shifted his feet from one to the other, and grasped the heavy pack on his back by the straps that were cutting into his shoulders.
Yet as the cunning man knelt down and stooped a finger toward that bowl of stone, he froze for a moment and peered closer, frowning, great shaggy brows twisting together. The rim of the bowl was green-black with moss, but the still water was coated by a scum of dead flies. The cunning man stood up to his full height then, and looked around as best he could as afternoon gave way to evening, and it seemed to the boy he looked for an awful long time out in the mere, and the way he glowered the boy thought perhaps he did not like what he saw there. Yet John Magnus said not a word more about it, and they carried on into the village of Carradin.
The streets were dirt, but some soul or old English lord had put up slabs of stone as sidewalks along the one and only street, and there was a public house whose sign was the dubh dael, and John Magnus stopped there and frowned at that, but after a few moments entered in, the boy at his heels. There was a bed to be had, cool ale from the cask, and good bread from the morning and warm fish from the evening, and so money changed hands and the travelers availed themselves of the hospitality, though the boy noted that John Magnus did not take off his boots or cloak, and kept the long dagger at his left side as they sat in the common room and ate.
The meal took perhaps an hour, with John Magnus and the boy relating the news and receiving the gossip, and then as he loaded his little clay pipe with willow-bark there was a disturbance outside—the cries and shrieks of a woman and a girl. The boy saw that the cunning man did not quite smile, but placed the unlit pipe in a pocket, and stood up with hat in hand to see the fuss.
The corpse had collapsed in the middle of the street. At first the boy thought its shirt was untucked, but as he peered closer in the dying light he saw that the thing had no shirt, but that the belly had swollen and stretched the skin, and then burst forth, giving birth to a heap of crawling white maggots. Across the street, a woman was in a faint on the sidewalk stone, a young girl of five or six wailing after her. John Magnus saw the boy inch closer and smiled, then called for a fire and water, and removing the long bladed knife he slipped the flat of the blade under one shoulder and flipped it over. A swarm of black flies shot up from the belly wound, and clustered thick around the mouth and eyes. The innkeeper arrived with a full bucket, and behind him his sun with a torch, and John sheathed his knife and took it from him, pouring the contents slowly and carefully on the face so that the drowning flies left it.
“Who knows this man?” he said aloud, for a small crowd had come out, and now the dead man’s features were clear to see. No-one answered right away, so he asked again. “Come, this must be friend or kin to someone here, he did not walk from far away.”
There was a murmur then, and one stepped forward and said as it was Thomas Rourke, dead these last three days. Then there was a burble of something in the crowd, and the boy caught certain names and prayers against Beelzebub and his minions, and crossed himself.
“There is cunning here,” John Magnus said “and I think if this is the first of the maggot-ridden you have seen, it will not be the last unless it is put out.”
That too caused a stir in the crowd, and the hazy trail of rumors and recollections came crowding in. The cunning man held up a hand, and directed everyone into the inn for safety and conversation, but from his belt he took a small leather satchel and handed it to the boy, and directed the innkeeper’s son with the torch to stay and do as he said.
Now the innkeeper’s son was full fourteen or so, and the boy could not have been more than eleven, and one would not likely have taken orders easily from the other. Yet the boy moved with a purpose as he opened the satchel and took out the little brown bottle, carefully pulling the stopper with his teeth to not spill a drop or breath in the fumes, and began pouring it over the corpse, aiming for the wounds where the flies and maggots poured out. Then he called the innkeeper’s son closer and touched the torch to it, and the liquid caught and began to burn with a livid blue and then orange, sending up foul smoke that caused the innkeeper’s son to fall back. Yet the boy stayed near the corpse-fire for a long while, though his eyes stung and the tears ran, to crush and burn any maggot that tried to wiggle free from the holocaust.
Perhaps a few hours passed; he had called to the innkeeper’s son for wood when the oil ran low, and those first faggots were now red-limned blackened coals when John Magnus came out. The cunning man kicked at the fire and a few more maggots spilled out over his boot, but they were crispy and curled. He nodded at the boy.
“Well done. There is another here, whose taste goes to revenants and nigrimancy, though if this is all his art there is not much to fear, and I must go to meet him.”
The boy looked a question at the inn, but John Magnus shook his head, so they started out back the road they had come, just as they were. Going south on that road they came to a little trail that the boy had not seen before, and followed it down to the very edge of the salty meer, and in the depths of which tiny balls of blue flame seemed to hover over still waters. John Magnus took a few herbs and bottles of oil from his belt, and crushed and rubbed them into his skin, around the neck and face and wrists, then turned and did the same to the boy—who grimaced at the foul naptha-smell, but said nothing as the big hands massaged it into his flesh. So prepared, they set off into the meer.
Along the way the cunning man told a story, half to the boy and half to himself, of the witches Llanddona—three women with Irish accents who had washed up in a boat on the shores of Wales, and by their powers were permitted to settle outside the town, and by their malice caused much disagreement and trouble by the black flies they kept clutched to their bosoms, and released on their foes… “Now the Order of the Fly has not always had strength in Ireland, nor was it ever very much widespread, for those who practice it are not apt to share much. I wonder now what relation our man is to them—father, or uncle, perhaps?—but I doubt not that is of their kind, though perhaps about a darker business.”
It was a slippery and crooked trail, and the air was alive with black flies big and small, and here and there were offerings of game and fowl strung up, cut open, and left to hang and rot, so that the flies clustered close and thick on them like a living carpet. It was dark now, and the moon hid its face behind a cloud, with only the north star bright and clear enough to guide by, so it seemed they headed south and then west, before they came to a rude hut with windows of greasy parchment, which glowed dully like the orange eyes of some sunken giant of old. Overhead, the boy could make out black swarms of flies like evil clouds, moving in strange coordination.
There were two women standing outside in dresses of soiled sack-cloth that were mere tatters, so that their saggy breasts were naked to the air, and their hairy gashes as well. Those two females shivered in their movements, and at each step trembling maggots shook forth and fell on the ground from their cunts, to leave a slimy trail behind them. The boy looked up and could not see his master’s face in the dark, but heard the sound of the blade slide forth and could almost feel his smile. He spoke, this time once again in the tones of a lesson.
“Each man and woman is set a term in this life, and by love of god will fill it until struck down by accident, violence, or disease. Yet I’ve told you all life is a cycle, and not all is neat as all that, aye? These ones here were only two, perhaps three hours dead when he let his flies upon them, and in a day or three were up and shambling, driven by the worms that slowly consume them. There is no thought in those brains, they feel no pain nor recognize sight or sound, but only movement is granted them.”
He leaped forth then, and despite what he had said the two swung at him, though a little slow, and his blade sliced up from crotch to sternum of one so purple guts and inch-long pale white wiggling worms fell upon the ground, and then danced away and did the same to the next. The women-things staggered and collapsed as the maggots fell away from their hosts, and lay on the ground, arms and legs still spasming and twitching.
“They cannot be killed—destroyed, yes, with fire, or dismembered, but it is the worms that drive them.”
Cleaning his blade against a patch of clean dirt, but not bothering to sheath it, John Magnus strode up to the house, the boy close behind.
It was small but surprising uncluttered, clean save for vast trails of fly-speck, and there were shelves of bottles and aliments, mortar and pestle, a crumbling bundle of pages that might once have been a book, and a small table or work bench with a tin plate filled with blood and raw meat, on which the flies swarmed. There was a fire there, and a stool beside it, and on the stool an old man sat more ancient than any the boy had ever seen, so bent and grey and hairy was he, and naked to the waist before the fire. There was an evil wound along his scalp, and the edges were swollen red and shot with veins of black; the silvery hair had almost all fallen away, and in places the boy would have sworn that yellow bone poked through.
John Magnus could not stand at his full height in the house without his head knocking the ceiling, but he sketched a nod and introduced himself.
“I saw you on the road,” the old man burbled. “I knew then, you might be trouble. So I sent him, just as a warning.”
“You would have done better to leave me sleep. I might have left in the morning.”
The old man turned and gave a ghastly, broken smile. His face was marred by some ancient punishment, the nose merely a gaping hole above the scarred lips and crooked lips.
“No you wouldn’t.” the fly doctor said.
“No I wouldn’t.” the cunning man agreed.
“My hussies?” he asked.
“You’ll take no more pleasure from them. If that was the limit of your skills and ambition, I think you’d have been better sticking it in living women.”
The old man shrugged. “Experiments for my science. They served their purpose, and then they served another.”
“Your science is at an end. Give up now, and I’ll make it quick.”
The old man laughed at that, and the laugh turned into a choke, and John Magnus swore and pushed the boy out of the shack. A horrid buzzing filled his ears as the black, moving clouds above the hut seemed to descend upon it. John Magnus did not waste his breath, one hand clutching his cloak up around his mouth and nose as his dagger hand went to work on the old man. Yet the fragile figure seemed to almost vomit forth the black flies, and soon they covered everything.
The moon came out, and the boy stared back into the cabin. By the light of moon and fire he could see two figures crawling with flies locked in a death-struggle, and the buzzing of the great swarm took on a strange, half-hypnotic rhythm. Then at least John Magnus threw away his dagger and his cloak, and grabbed that old man’s head in both hands. He must have squeezed, for there was a terrible crack as the thin shell of the skull gave way, and a massive, pale fat grey maggot fell out onto the floor, the buzzing rising to a fever pitch—and then John Magnus’ boot fell down upon the squirming thing, and the synchronized buzz broke off to simple dissonant noise, and the swarm began to dissipate.
They burned the shack and all the contents, save for the book—which, as the cunning man said, might be worth something, then trudged back along the dark path toward the inn, where beer and baths were waiting.
The boy said nothing at first, then asked his question.
“He was old, and sought a way out of his failing flesh. The Order of the Fly are known for such regenerations—the maggot-ridden are but the first step in the path that leads to such transfigurations, though it is a terrible science, and full of risk. For the worm gnaws and gnaws, and the subject must have great faith or desperation to try it—for who knows if any of what they are will survive at all?” Leaving the boy to ponder that question, the cunning man ended the lesson.