It wasn’t good.
When at one point his eyes had fluttered open and he’d said: ‘Let me rest, Bela. I’m beat,’ Max suspected that the irony was not lost on any of them. Elara had really done a job on him.
Thick purple welts ran wild over his body, and this was apparent because Andrew’s clothes were ripped where presumably the beatings had broken through. Also dotted around his skin were comparatively little red bruises, Max assumed for the times when fists and feet had been reverted to. It was admiration that Max was struck with though: for Andrew to have done what he had done, in his state, must have taken a tremendous effort of will, worthy of the best.
As for the flayer, which of course it was, its cautious gaze was alternating between them and downstairs, seemingly engaged in some internal battle of loyalty.
Minutes passed, then the guard’s head bobbed into the landing, his eyes fixed on the flayer that towered above him, his face screaming how he did not want to be here.
‘Say, is... is everything all right? I heard - sounds...’
The flayer stared, the guard cowered. Whatever dog part of it Andrew had found was presently buried behind a nightmarish mammoth skull.
‘Can’t... let him... go,’ Andrew wheezed as his eyes reopened, but Kabela was already on the case.
‘Hey!’ she said, stalking across the landing, ‘Hey, the thing’s gone crazy, beaten down half the wall, and what the fuck were you doing putting it up here anyway, you crazy fucks -’
‘It was - what? You’re not supposed to be up here - hey - let me go - let me go - don’t bring me near that thing!’
‘Too late,’ said Kabela, shoving the guard towards Andrew’s room. ‘In there. And one more word, I’ll do to you what you did to him.’ She pointed at Andrew. ‘You got me? Good.’ Then she spat at his feet. ‘Animals.’
Kabela skimmed across the landing. ‘It’s OK, Andrew, it’s OK. I’m not going to let this happen again. And - besides, I think you’ve got a new friend.’
‘They’d... they’d come up and beat him, see... kept him vicious... then they’d - they’d come into my room -’
Kabela stroked his hair. ‘It’s OK, Andrew. Not any more.’
‘His name.’ And now Andrew turned to Max. ‘You asked him his name. Well, I think - it’s David.’
There were clinks and jangles as the flayer moved towards them, and several creaks as everyone else bar Andrew moved away. The creature came to rest beside the man, then ducked its huge head and pointed inwards. ‘Darvid,’ it said in a deep, punch-drunk slur. ‘Darvid.’
‘It speaks?’ said Kabela.
A grin twisted itself through Andrew’s features. ‘He, Bela. It’s a he.’ While Kabela covered her mouth as if she’d just realised a private joke, Andrew’s grin twisted some more to become a grimace. ‘I don’t think he was always like this.’
Keeping one eye firmly on David, Max said, ‘We don’t have much time. Very soon, they’ll discover we’ve escaped.’
‘That sounds about right,’ said Kabela. ‘I don’t know when they come to change guards, but mine did not look happy when I left him.’ She looked at their faces. ‘I asked him to take me out on a night walk. I seemed to lose him on the way.’ She looked at their faces. ‘Girls can kick too, you know.’
Max digested this information then said, ‘Forty-five minutes, if we’re lucky. Somehow, Andrew, we need to get you out of here. Can you stand?’
For a second Andrew just stared, then he let out a snorting laugh that quickly turned into a pained cough. ‘You’re going to - rescue me. After everything that’s... you’re still going to...’ Further coughing. ‘That’s - that’s pure bloody poetry.’
Max did not consider himself a poet, and thus made no comment. Andrew continued, snatching bits of words through an increasingly violent cough.
‘It was - you in Brac, wasn’t it. I remember the - burning building, crawling for a way out, and then... then I was - I woke up - stone against my back, the gate right in front of me... but I never knew how I got from one to the...’ With a shudder and a push, Andrew sat himself up, mirroring his position all that time ago. This seemed to deal the cough a decisive blow, since it receded, allowing Andrew to wipe pink spittle from his jaw. ‘You son of a bitch, Max, it was you. And here you are, ready to save me again. What did I do to deserve this? That’s what I want to know, you miserable old bastard. What did I do?’
Plenty of pleasing responses were suddenly available to Max, but he got as far as, ‘I -’ before the words were knocked from his lungs by some kind of miniature truck attempting some kind of miniature land-speed record. ‘I knew it wasn’t true,’ Max thought he heard. ‘All them things he said. I knew it wasn’t true.’
As he stared down at Billy, he became aware that his eyes were in need of a vigourous scrub, but his arms were out of his control and they laced and locked around the boy, and Max knew that in that moment even David the flayer could not have been prised them apart. Thoughts murmured through his head as if channel flickers on a transistor television: I could have died when Andrew Mark fired the gun... I could have died when the flayer attacked me... I could have died when you left me... I could have died when you left me... but the channels were old and the plug was pulled and the thoughts dimmed and faded until all that was left was the child that he cradled in his arms and the tears that rolled down his face like chinks of tumbled silver.