By the time I step from the landing pad onto the swaying surface of Rig 7, a crowd has gathered to watch. It’s almost as if they’ve never seen a woman before. A ridiculous notion – the Rigs carry whole villages atop their long spider-legs as they tend to the towering forests of mega-grain. There are plenty of other women aboard. It’s just that none of them look like me.
They wipe a seat clean in the dusty mess hall and produce a cobwebbed bottle that might once have been Amasec. I flash a smile and settle down to wait. At first, they just stare. All these gruff, no-nonsense men, afraid of a pretty face. It takes the younger ones to make the first move, fresh-faced and unbroken by the harvest. They preen and strut for me, shouting over each other with tales of increasingly impossible achievements. The older men hold themselves at a distance, but they’re no less eager for my attention. They just play a different game, stepping in briefly to cut the youths down to size with a witty aside, then throwing me a casual, complicit wink. Nearby, their wives glare knives into all of us.
I remain aloof as the carnival unfolds. Watching, listening, smiling without comment. Sensing my interest wavering, they search for anything, or anyone, to keep my attention. Finally, one calls out to a tall, broad shouldered man sat apart at the bar, swapping pleasantries with the barman.
‘Hensel! Tell her about the Witch!’
Hensel turns slowly and smiles across at me. It’s a smile that’s worth the journey.
‘I think the lady’s had enough stories for tonight lads,’ his voice is soft but firm, brimming with easy authority. The crowd falls quiet, but I speak up.
‘I think the lady can manage one more.’
He makes a show of it, but in the end, he melts like all the rest.
‘That was a few cycles back now, during the moon harvest. We’d had a young woman come in on the conscription shuttle with her daughter. Rare, to see a pair like that alone. Thought nothing of it, though, until the ghosts started appearing.’
‘Lost voices drifting on the wind. Dead folk seen walking the streets at night. Things that shouldn’t be. Witchcraft.’
I raise a playful eyebrow. ‘Do you have much experience with witches?’
Hensel sips at his beer, savouring his moment. ‘I spent five years with the PDF on the silo station,’ his eyes glance up at the sky. ‘I’ve seen things that a lady such as yourself couldn’t imagine.’
I let that pass. Barely. ‘But how did you know this woman was the witch?’
‘Soldier’s instincts, at first. There was always something strange about her and that daughter. But I had to be certain.’ He pats the ornate looking blade at his belt and winks at me. ‘One thing I learnt in the PDF, is witches can’t bear the touch of cold iron.’
‘So, when things were at their worst, while women and children cowered in their beds, I acted. After the harvest festival, I led that woman out, away from everyone, to the edge of the rig. I held this blade against her skin, and I saw it right there, written across her face. The iron-fright. It grips witches deep and reveals the beast inside. My blade stripped away her falsehoods, all her masks and magic, and she became a creature of nightmare. Eyes of flame, and the scream of a banshee beetle.’
‘She was strong. No woman was ever so strong. She fought me, there on the edge, my iron against her witchcraft, and I swear by the harvest, she almost had me. But I’m a man of faith, as these men know. So, with one final prayer, I threw her from the rig. Over and down into the endless dark.’ He basks in the cheers of those around him. ‘The Emperor protects.’
I shake my head in admiration. ‘What about the daughter?’
‘Poor girl. Beset by fevers and fits, as you’d expect living with a monster like that. We sent her back to the city on one of the shuttles, to the care of a doctor.’
I smile my best smile, then gesture to the seat beside me. ‘Would you like to join me for a drink?’
The crowd disperses. The game is over, and to the victor, the spoils.
He speaks too much, he laughs too loud, but I don’t care. I keep the drinks flowing, then when the night is at its darkest, I lean close and whisper into his ear. Hensel cannot hide his delight as he leads me outside. He sways away from the crowds, towards the edge of the creaking rig, where stars sparkle between towering stalks of grain.
Only then do I let the glamour fall.
Hensel’s eyes go wide. He falls to the ground, cowering against the rails. Even drunk, he guesses who I am. And he knows what I am. The coward doesn’t even try to fight – Hensel always was a rat beneath the bluster and the smile. That was why he never even gave my mother a chance to fight back. I was there too that night, hiding in the shadows. I watched him whisper sweet words in her ear, then slip his blade into her back while she was staring at these same stars before he tipped her still warm body over the edge—the heroic saviour of Rig 7.
I lean over his cowering body and take his knife. Beneath its polished handle, the blade is crude and rusted. I stare deep into his eyes as I hold the iron close to his throat.
He was right. The iron-fright strips away all masks.
Afterwards, I dance through the narrow streets. I wear my own face now—my mother’s face. A few workers glimpse me through the humid night mists, and they whisper to themselves about a dead woman walking. Signs, they say, of the witch.
About the Author
Benjamin Joseph is a 40k fan, and writer, based in Dubai and trying to find the Grimdark in eternal sunshine.