Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Butchers of Men I

Pavel's torch was starting to burn out.

The orange flames danced down the square-cut tunnel ahead of him, making the limestone walls glisten. Cold, damp air was seeping from somewhere deep below, sneaking up behind him and caressing his neck with wet fingers.

Damn it, Pavel, watch the entrance, he told himself.

But he couldn't. Every time he turned his back on the tunnel, that clammy breeze started stroking him. It was unnerving. It was like the dead breath of one of the sleepers, something flickering out of a corpse's mouth. It demanded attention.

Majewa laughed at the old superstitions, laughed at anyone who jabbed forked fingers at a mention of the Barlog or the Black Banner. Her rough humour had soothed their nerves on the trip up. No need to be afraid, she'd said. Not men like you. Not with me around.

Pavel wished she was still here.

He was hunched just inside a huge stone door, a massive shutter of rock with graven bronze plates inlaid on its outer face. Dripping water echoed round the chamber it led from. The ancient tomb stank of mould and rot. You'd never think such a place could be underneath the old Dwarven quarry. Let alone be older than it.

A fusty stink emanated from the clogged ornamental pool in the centre of the chamber. The mercenaries had made him wade around in it, looking for secret doors that didn't exist. Even dunked him under the surface to check. He could still taste the slimy water in the back of his throat.

It had taken them almost two hours to work out how to open the way into the deeper tomb behind the bronze door. They weren't smart, not that it made them less dangerous. If their smirking elf wizard hadn't deigned to help them, they'd probably still be here now, instead of further inside.

The slab was jammed open now, leaning on a pair of ancient mine props. The gray wood was splintering on the outside, but still firm within. He hoped. If they gave out, the slab would swing shut and seal them all inside.

They'd barely managed to get the props through the tight entry shaft that led down through the hidden floor hatch there.They'd made him help. His hands were still chafed from the work. At least they didn't make him do it alone. Not that he could have, the props were too heavy. That would have been Majewa's style, put a beaten enemy to an impossible task, then punish him for failing.

But he wasn't with Majewa. He was with these mercenaries. They'd spared his life when he begged for mercy, then left him here with the torch in his hand and instructions to guard the way out. He'd have run the minute they left him alone, except for what he'd seen out there.

They weren't alone on the mountainside. He knew that, even though the mercenaries didn't.

They'd let him keep a blade, at least. That gave him two chances. Maybe fight his way out, or maybe trick the mercenaries somehow, let them deal with what he'd seen.

Now he was alone in the tomb with that icy, wet, living air lapping at him, it didn't feel like much of a chance at all. He was no coward. He knew that, in his heart. He could fight if he had to.

He hoped he didn't have to.

Something moved in the shadows under the entry shaft.


It had all started when the bar fight went wrong.

It was supposed to be a simple enough takedown. The Tileans had been riling the place up for days, taking the best seats in the Sow and Shoats, throwing their money around and harassing the barmaids. Laughing at the locals, calling them superstitious peasants just because nobody was stupid enough to guide them up to the Barlog.

Their leader, the blowhard with all the gold, needed taking down a peg, that was the deal. Anyone who said the legends of the Barlog were baloney needed a knife in his kidneys anyway. Enough was enough - civic pride was at stake. The greasy foreigners needed to be shown that Zenres didn't stand for having their folklore mocked, tales for kids or not.

Majewa met them in the alley outside. All of them were there - the Red Slaughtermen. Zenres's boldest and baddest, bloody handed rascals all. The eight older members, the two would-bes. An unofficial militia, dealing out the justice that the Prince's men never bothered with. Everyone in town knew them, everyone in town feared them.

Majewa had brought knives. There were excited murmers as she handed them out. Knives were serious. Peasants didn't get to own weapons, under Prince Renoir's laws. Slaughtermen though they were, and due the respect their brutality bought them, they were still peasants under the law. Boning knives from the abattoir was as serious as they could get.

"Make sure the mouthy one gets bled," Majewa said, flicking her sodden black hair out of her eyes. "You know what I like."

"Face or gut, get him cut," Aurel said, smiling nastily. The same age as Pavel, he was out to prove himself. Pavel hoped he wouldn't.

Majewa pressed a knife into Pavel's hand. A long, thin blade with a slight curve to it, honed to a gleaming edge. It looked like it could shear through steel. Pavel turned it over in his hand, apprehensively.

"What's the matter, Butter?" Aurel said, seeing his expression. "Can't hack it? Pigs only, is that it?" He leaned in to Pavel, sneering. Pavel could smell his rancid teeth.

Aurel had only been invited into the gang a month before him. He kept trying to provoke Pavel, keen to remind everyone he wasn't the youngest any more. But he hadn't killed anyone either.

Not as far as Pavel knew. anyway.

"I'll be a Slaughterman before you," Pavel said angrily. "I can do it." His hand clenched round the knife's handle. He'd been butchering pigs for three months now. The older gang members all said there was no difference between killings, not when it boiled down to it. Just different animals.

"That's the thing about butter," Aurel said, shoving him. He was taller and heavier than Pavel, and knew it. "It's yellow. Like you are, Pavel Butter."

"Save it for the Lytys, Gilt," Ion boomed. The tall man was Majewa's second, the gang's huge, muscular enforcer. Aurel scowled at the sound of his own nickname. Aurel was young, inexperienced and had long, blond, rather feminine hair, so they called him Gilt, same as an unmated female pig.

If they impressed the older gang members, in time they might earn better nicknames. If they were lucky. But impressing the Slaughtermen meant taking a life. The older Slaughtermen were right, Pavel thought. It didn't matter what went on the other end of the knife. A cold, hard rock buried inside his stomach rolled over every time he thought about it.

But that didn't make him a coward. He could do it, if he had to, he knew he could.

Ion saw Aurel's scowl, stepped up to him. "What it is, Gilt? Think you're better than Butter?"

"Can't trust cowards," snarled Aurel.

"Big words for a small shoat," Gavril said softly, coming up behind him like a gaunt shadow.

"Oi!" Majewa had finished handing out the knives to the others. "No fighting in my litter. Mother Sow don't hold with that. You're here to knife the soldier boys, not each other."

Aurel curled in on himself, slunk back at the wiry woman's words. Ion watched him do it, standing tall, then nodded submissively to Majewa. She smiled back.

"Right, my little piggies! Off you go! Cut the Lytys up and good!"

In they all went, blood up and knives ready. Aurel slid up to Pavel in the throng, staying shoulder to shoulder with him, rotten teeth leering in a cruel smile. Pavel scowled back. He'd show Aurel what he could do. He'd show them all.

Just before they went through the door, crossing the threshold between the raw chill of the town square and the sweating, onion-reeking inn's hall, Aurel murmured low in his ear. Low, but still louder than the roar of the farmers carousing inside, voice as poisonous as the breath that issued with it.

"I know you're a coward, Butter. I know you can't kill."

Then he elbowed Pavel hard in the gut and pushed past him, eager for the fight.

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