Thursday, 6 March 2014

Butchers of Men II

They were sat in the back of a cart as it crept out of town. The mule pulling it kept farting loudly as it plodded along. It was just about the only sound to break the silence that reigned over the six of them.

Ion and Alin were dead. They'd never come out of the Sow and Shoats. Cornel was in the town jail, with a Bretonnian leech looking after the gut wound he'd taken. Majewa said he probably wasn't going to recover. Markhu was locked up in the stocks by the West Gate, still unconscious after one of the Tilean soldiers had cracked a cobble off his temple. The Prince's guards hadn't bothered to revive him before locking him up.

And the rest of them were heading for the Barlog.

The tall, dark mountain seemed darker than usual, if Pavel looked up at it. He tried not to. They all tried not to. But it was hard to stop.

The looming crag seemed to have escaped from the taller line of mountains marching behind it. Perhaps it wanted to get to Zenres first, Pavel thought. Maybe it just couldn't wait to crush all the tiny people that lived there, roll over them in a great avalanche of granite.

Nobody ever went to the Barlog. Not locals, at least. Yes, the odd treasure seeker or foreign scholar might. But the townsfolk wouldn't take them. He still didn't understand why they were going. Well, he did, but it didn't make sense.

The fight in the inn had been a disaster. They took the Tileans by surprise, like they'd planned. But even cornered and outnumbered, the fighters had put up a tough defence. And then the strangers, the mercenaries, had weighed in. From nowhere! It wasn't fair, it wasn't their fight. They had no business suddenly standing up, throwing their travel-worn cloaks off and attacking like that.

Pavel still remembered the sound that the northman's axe had made when he swung it into Ion's head. Thock.

Alin had managed to wound the mouthy Tilean sergeant, but before he could finish the job he'd been spiked on the halberd of the heavy, grey-bearded Empire veteran. The slim-faced elf (an elf! In Zenres!) muttering unintelligible syllables, passed his hands through the air as though throwing a net. Vres had collapsed under the weight of that invisible cast.

Even if the fight had lasted long enough for him to get to it, Pavel wouldn't have made any difference. The knife got heavier and heavier in his hand as he'd stood in the doorway, breathless, trying to make himself surge forward and attack someone. But somehow all he could do was stand and stare at the injured Tilean by the fireplace, lying on the floor with his hands full of his own guts and a ghastly sick look on his face.

Aurel. It was his fault, he'd knocked Pavel's wind out of him before he'd even had a chance.

"Coward," Aurel hissed triumphantly at him as he pushed past, running out the door with his unbloodied knife clutched in one fist.

Then the ogre had come crashing in from the back rooms, furious that nobody had invited it to the brawl. One look at that huge, thunderous shape and everyone ran. Everyone who still could, at least.

Now the mercenaries were on their way to the Barlog. They'd been all round the town, buying equipment with foreign gold. Word was, the Tilean was paying them. But Majewa had rounded up the Slaughtermen early, declared the abattoir shut ("Mourning for Ion and Alin," she'd declared) and packed up the mule cart they were now riding out to the ominous mountain.

Pavel had been getting looks from Aurel the whole way. It was a cruel look, a knowing look. Aurel always gave him cruel and knowing looks, ever since their first day working together. This one was worse. It spoke of advantage gained, leverage to be applied. Aurel was a bully, but he'd never done more than threaten Pavel. That would change now, he could feel it.

Unless he did something to change it back.

He thought back to that first hot summer day in the slaughterhouse.

Ion had held the pig down, turned its throat up to him and waited expectantly. And Pavel had plunged the knife down, missed the mark and been sprayed with the blood of the wounded, squealing pig. The noise, the smell, it had been too much. He'd vomited and passed out, much to everyone's amusement.

Everyone but Aurel.

Aurel had never let up since. It was as though fainting that once had marked Pavel as weak and useless, a runt that could be shoved out of the litter at will. Aurel was just waiting for the best moment to do it.

Pavel had lost track of the pigs he'd killed since. He'd made up for his poor start quickly. A slice, a sidestep to avoid the spatter, a shove to send the body down the chute. Maybe it was different after all. Pigs didn't look at their wounds with disbelief. Or call for their fathers. Although maybe they did, now he thought of it. The Tilean had squealed, pig-like, when the halberd went in.

Pavel looked up. Aurel was still staring at him. He scowled back.

"Quiet today, aren't you all?" Majewa shouted back to them suddenly. "Not a squeak or a squeal out of any of you! What is it, still worrying about the dead?"

At the sound of her voice, Aurel looked away with a smirk.

"I knew Ion since we were boys," Tiber Tusks said. "Marku and Alin too. So did you." Tiber was broad and short. He always looked angry, and he'd grown a spiky moustache that jutted out from his square face like the tusks on a hog, hence his nickname. Now, his angry look was almost tearful as he stared accusingly at Majewa.

"And now they're dead!" she shouted back, almost joyfully. "Doesn't mean I didn't know them! Doesn't mean you didn't! And doesn't mean we're not going to get some payback for it!"

"At the Barlog?" Gavril said. His quiet voice gave the word a special shiver.

"Payback there is as good as anywhere else, my boys. Can you say otherwise?"

Nobody answered that. Pavel could see the Slaughtermen agreed, even if they didn't like it.

"You know those mercenaries are helping the Tilean," Vras added nervously. Majewa twisted on the driver's bench, grinned savagely at her boys in the back.

"We're taking knives up against those mercenaries, is that it?" asked Tusk angrily. "They've got bloody halberds and axes. And that elf. A bloody wizard. What do we have against a wizard?"

"I'll do him," Aurel said. "Come up behind him and stick him with my knife, like I did to Tilean."

"What, scratch him and run off?" sneered Tusk. "Fat lot of good that'll be."

"Boys, would I bring you up against those hired scum if I thought we couldn't take them?" Majewa said, interrupting Aurel before he could think of a comeback.

"Yes," said Gavril quietly.

She would, as well. She was always reckless, but now more than ever, Pavel thought. Ion, Alin, she'd grown up with them, as Tusk said. Revenge had crazed her, you could see it in her eyes. But she was still in charge. What she said, the Slaughtermen did.

"Damn right," she said, staring Gavril right in the eye until he dropped his hooded gaze.

"We can't," Pavel found himself saying. Majewa's fierce eyes locked on his own in a heartbeat.

"Can't?" she asked him, softly.

It was very quiet in the wagon suddenly. You could hear every plank nervously creaking against its neighbour, every trundle of the wheels in the ancient, overgrown track. Behind Majewa, the silhouette of the Barlog seemed to swell like a thunderhead, threatening to swallow the sky.

"Butter's just a coward," Aurel said. "He means he won't. That's the thing about butter, it's yellow. Like him. The rest of us aren't afraid. We can take them, we just weren't expecting them last time."

"That's my vicious little Gilt," Majewa said, eyes never shifting from Pavel's.

"I'm not a coward," Pavel said. "I'd fight them. I'm not scared. If I was scared, I wouldn't say anything. I'd sit there and brag about what I was going to do and hope nobody noticed I was pissing my pants." He let that sink in for a moment, enough to see Majewa's gaze flicker a tiny fraction towards Aurel and her lip twitch up in a minute smile. "But we don't have the weapons. We can't take those mercenaries with just knives."

"True enough," Majewa said. "Vras, look under my seat."

Vras nervously looked round at the others, then leaned forwards and dragged a heavy wooden crate out from under the driver's plank. He lifted the lid on a bundle of wool blankets. "Unwrap that," Majewa told him, still gazing hypnotically into Pavel's eyes. He hoped the mule knew where it was going without being steered. He didn't dare look away himself to check.

Vras tugged at the blankets. There was a wooden clatter.

"Yes!" Aurel said, scrambling forward to get a better look. "Bows!"

"Pig's teats," Tusk said, reaching down and pulling out an arrow. "Where'd you get this?"

"Friends," Majewa said grinning. "In low places."

"What's that?" Aurel was asking, drawing a long, hooked blade mounted on a rough wooden handle out of the chest. It looked like the end of some Empire polearm, sawn off.

Gavril shrugged. "Don't know. Sharp enough," was his considered opinion.

"Seems we're not the only ones who don't want the mercenaries coming back from the Barlog," Majewa said. "They got the jump on us last time. We'll have one on them this time. Sounds good, don't it?"

Her eyes glittered. Pavel felt cold.

"Yes," Tusk said, brandishing another of the short, bladed poles. "Sounds good to me!"

"Here," Aurel said, throwing a bow at Pavel. Startled, he flinched away from Majewa's gaze, fumbling to catch the weapon. "You're no use in a fight. Maybe you can distract them with this long enough for the rest of us to finish them off." He bared his grey teeth to underline his joke.

"No thanks," Vras said, taking the bow out of Pavel's hands. "I don't want Butter's fingers slipping and putting an arrow through me."

"Bows for those who can use them," Majewa said, turning back to the road and flicking the reins. The Slaughtermen were excited, doling out weapons from the cache, and she looked more than satisfied. "Blades for the rest. We get up to the old quarry and wait for them there!"

"And then we bleed them!" Aurel shouted, brandishing his hooked blade wildly.

"Watch it," Tusk said, shoving him back down. "That thing's sharp."

Majewa laughed as the mule began dragging the cart up the long switchback track up the Barlog. Pavel's heart sank lower than ever.


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