Friday, 7 March 2014

Butchers of Men III

They reached the quarry late that night and set up camp in the upper storey of an old bunkroom.

It was a desolate barn of a building made of huge grey stone blocks. The dwarves who'd built it made it to last, and the walls certainly had. But the roof was missing most of its tiles, was even open to the frigid night air in places, and there was a huge circular hole in the thick beams of the floor. Whatever mechanical device had rested there before had sunk through the mouldering wood and smashed into rusted cogs and bent metal plates on the grinding room floor below.

Perhaps it had once been a bustling centre of industry. Now it was a empty nest for finches, a sad reminder that the Dwarves were long gone and their kingdoms fallen.

Lonely though it was, it was a good place for an ambush. You could see the path where it finally made it into the step-cut bowl of the quarry. The sheer rocks all round made it unlikely that anyone would come up another way, and there were good lines of sight from the windows to the quarry yard outside.

The mercenaries would arrive, probably sometime the following morning unless they travelled through the night. And the Slaughtermen would be waiting for them.

They lit a small fire on a stone slab Tusk dragged up from the ground floor and sat round it, frying bacon. Majewa produced a leather flask of acrid homebrew from her cloak and handed it round. Pavel made a show of supping from it, but couldn't have swallowed much of the smoky, sour liquid down even if he had felt like it. Which he didn't.

Gavril took first watch, standing in a hollow window frame wrapped in a blanket and sharpening the edge of his new blade. The others sat round the fire in full braggadocio.

Tusk was talking about the time he and Vras had roughed up some of the town guards, ones who'd actually tried to do their job for a change and stop the pair extorting money for protection from a cooper. Pavel had heard it a dozen times, but tonight's rendition of the story had extra missing teeth and breaking bones. Majewa laughed at each new, souped-up atrocity; Aurel cackled and mimed along like an ape.

Pavel kept a smile on his face, nodded approvingly at the appropriate moments.

" the bastard couldn't sit down or stand up straight for a month! And his wife has to stew his pork for an extra day so he doesn't have to chew!" Tusk concluded, to raucous laughter.

"Do that to the Northman," Aurel said, leaning into the firelight and suddenly serious. "I want to see his face when you do it."

Pavel thought of the Northman. He had a chest like a barrel and a hard, cold face. The mail under his coat had caught the tavern's lamplight as he swung his axe. Pavel heard the sound of a blade hitting bone a thousand times a day in the slaughterhouse. But he'd never heard it in the Sow and Shoats, and never heard it from a friend's head.

Thock, it went. And Ion's face went blank.

The Northman's face showed nothing, just a tiny, satisfied narrowing of the eyes as he turned to find a new target.

Perhaps Tusk was thinking something similar. His broad mouth clamped shut like a boar's on a bone, and he pulled hard on his moustache.

"Yes," he said. "I'll show them." But his eyes looked scared, Pavel thought.

"The Slaughtermen slaughter men," Aurel chanted, the words of their gang anthem. Majewa joined him, then Tusk.

"The Slaughtermen slaughter men
Cut their throats and bleed 'em
Chop our your liver and give your lights
To the pigs to feed 'em!"

Pavel sang along as heartily as he could. It wasn't enough.

"Sing it!" Aurel screamed, suddenly grabbing him with crooked fingers. "Sing it, Butter, you coward!"

Then the crooked fingers were fists, and Aurel was swinging them into his face. Pavel lashed out on instinct, felt gristle pop against his knuckles, then something collided with his head and the shadowy room was filled with silent bursts of pulsing golden light. A confusion of arms and legs and scuffling, the taste of iron in his mouth, muffled shouting.

The ringing in his ears subsided and he discovered he was being held by Vras and Tusk, one on each shoulder. Aurel was sprawled out along the fire's edge, Gavril standing over him with a boot on his neck and the hooked blade in his hand. Its battered edge caught and splintered the firelight like a broken mirror.

There was a carving knife in Aurel's hand, and his nose was broken and bleeding.

Did I do that? Pavel thought.

"Save it, you stupid little bastard," Tusk was roaring at Aurel.

"He started it! I'll kill him, the coward, my nose! Let me up!" Aurel shrieked.

"He's drunk," Vras was protesting. "He's drunk, he doesn't know what he's doing, go easy, go easy Gavril!"

"Drop it," Gavril was hissing, almost crooning, to Aurel. "Drop it, Gilt, or I'll slit you."

Majewa was hooting with laughter by the fire, the skin of homebrew in her hand and her boot heels drumming the dusty old floor.

"Majewa! Come on, do something! Stop them!" Vras pleaded.

"You're dead, Butter, you're dead," Aurel swore, snarling. He tried to squirm out from under Gavril's boot. Gavril pressed down, holding him in place.

"I'll slit him, Majewa," he said. "Give the word and he's gone."

"Enough!" she roared all of a sudden, leaping up and over the fire in a single bound. Spray from the booze skin caught the flames and blazed for a second, sending an orange flare round the room. Before it had died, Majewa had thrown Gavril over, kicked the knife out of Aurel's hand and was squatting on the boy's chest, cradling his head as though she might kiss him. In the firelight, she looked as wild as a ferret.

"Butter's one of us, Gilt, like it or not," she said sweetly. "We don't bleed our own."

"But..." Aurel started, but she rammed her forehead down on his bloody nose before he got any further, and he was out cold.

Majewa sprang to her feet, wiping Aurel's blood out of her eyebrows, and made her way over to Pavel.

"Good punch, that," she observed mildly. "Could have used some of that back in the Sow."

"I didn't mean to," Pavel said, weakly.

"Course you did, little Butter," she said, grabbing his chin and forcing him to look at her. "You're nearly a Slaughterman now. Getting the hang of it, aren't you?"


"Because if you aren't, this is a bad time to be getting cold feet, I'd say. Right? Up here, with those mercenaries on their way? If you wanted to, say, walk home, I'd have to make sure you weren't going to bump into them and spoil our surprise. Plus none of us would take it kindly that you didn't want to avenge Ion and Alin. Who were like family to you."

That was true, he had to admit. Just not so true he wanted to hear any more blades hitting bone. Thock.

"Not to mention my friends back in town," Majewa went on. "They might take it amiss if you wandered off and left the job half-done, I think. So for everyone's peace of mind, I hope you're going to stick with us. Get this finished."

And there it was again, her stare boring into him like an augur through uncured pigskin.

"Yes," he said. He didn't know if he meant it or if he was just too scared of her to say anything else. But there it was, said.

"Okay, let him go," Majewa said, all smiles. Vras and Tusk let go of him, both stepped back. "No hard feelings, Gav? Just didn't want you cutting up our Gilt over a little drunken spat, that's all."

"Sure," Gavril muttered, rubbing his shoulder.

"Best you get some rest, now. Butter will take the rest of your watch. And he'll sleep downstairs, him and Vras together. Make sure he's out of Gilt's way when Gilt wakes up, just until I've had a little talk with him too, eh?"

Vras sighed, his shoulders drooping. But he gathered up his blankets and trudged over to the stairs that led down. Majewa picked up her fallen flask, held it upside down over the fire. A couple of drops fell and flashed in the fire, but it was empty.

"Ah," she said, sorrowfully. "Now that's a pity. Well, I'll call it a night, then. Goodnight, boys," she said, then picked up her pack and cloak and strode purposefully towards the stairs.

"Where are you going?" Vras asked anxiously.

"Places to go, people to meet. Hold the fort until I'm back. I won't be long." She vanished down the stairs.

"Pig's teats," Tusk said, sitting down heavily on his bedroll.

"Where's she going?" Vras asked again.

"Out," Gavril said, heaving Aurel over on to his bedding. "Go on, then," he said to Pavel, gesturing at the window. "You heard her."

Pavel went to the window and stared out into the black autumn night. There was nothing to see out there. The lights of Zenres were too distant, or perhaps hidden behind its walls. Heavy clouds covered the moon. All he could see was the shadows that smothered the head of the Barlog.

The others sighed and twisted on their beds for a while, then there was silence apart from the odd snore or fart. The fire popped and crackled occasionally. The night outside was vast and cold.

He looked back at the sleeping forms round the fire. All his life, he'd wanted to be a Slaughterman. One of the gang, someone one small step up from the other peasants who lived, worked and died in Zenres. They lived big, glorious lives, free from fear of the law, respected by farmer and merchant alike.

So it seemed from the outside, at least. Funny how he'd never always seen Majewa as heroic, not a lunatic. Tusk had been strong, indomitable, not a blustering idiot. Vras was loyal and reliable, rather than timid and easily led.

At least he'd always known Aurel was a bastard.

Did he really want to be a Slaughterman so much any more? But in Zenres, what else was there?He looked back to the window.

There was a tiny flare of light from across the quarry yard, the shifting glow of a lantern out in one of the rooms in another of the empty buildings out there. Only there for a moment, seen through a broken window pane. Majewa at her meeting, Pavel thought, and thought again about the way she'd looked at him in the cart. A dangerous woman, afraid of nothing, always certain to take revenge on anyone who crossed her no matter the cost.

Seconds later, he'd made his decision.


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