Saturday, 8 March 2014

Butchers of Men IV

Vras was half asleep. Full sleep was impossible, hunched against the side of a long-derelict rock crusher. It was freezingly cold in the room around him. His blankets were thin comfort against the hard stone. He'd tried to clear a little nest for himself amongst the dust and chips on the floor, but for every knobbly lump he threw away, another seemed to burrow its way underneath his back.

And all that was nothing compared to the fact that he was camping out on the Barlog.

He knew the stories. The Black Banner, the sleepers under the mountain. If they were just tales to scare children with, why did the old men in the town square mutter them under their breaths with pale faces, and never after dark? Why had the Prince, who wasn't even originally from Zenres, bricked up all the palace windows that faced the craggy mountain?

Why had nobody from the town been up here in living memory?

His eyes opened again, scanning the dark room. There was a faint glow from the roof, the dim orange embers of the fire upstairs. Occasionally, Tusk grunted in his sleep. You could hear the autumnal wind outside, gnawing on the exposed rafters of the cavernous shed.

And something else.


A tiny scrape, scrape of claw on stone. Like something digging.

Vras sat upright, peering nervously into the gloomy expanse of the grinding chamber. You couldn't see far down here, even by day. Too many corners, too much abandoned mining gear. In the dark, you only got the faint outlines of ancient machinery, heavy with filthy grease and rust. Great brooding shapes with strange articulated arms, half-rotted bellows and leathery chutes, the massive open mouths of the stone-cold furnaces that once powered the boilers.

The shadows in here could grab you and swallow you whole.

The scratching continued. Rats? Vras wondered. It couldn't be... well, it just couldn't. Blancvik would only awaken at the end of the world, the stories said. His bleached bones were sealed carefully in a secret tomb in the hollow hill, pinned to a slab by his cursed sword. The dread flag of his doomed legion rested with him.

He wouldn't be digging his way out. Not to kill interlopers on the slopes of his resting place. He never did that in the stories. Not at... what time was it, anyway? Shouldn't it be his watch by now?

Vras groped at the pile of blankets he'd brought down for Pavel. Empty, still heaped clumsily together next to his own. How long had the boy been up watching, then? Was it hours, or had the rotgut in Majewa's flask just made it seem that way?

Poor kid. Pavel wasn't a coward, he knew that. He just had a clear enough head to see that all this fighting wasn't right. Slaughtermen fought for the pride of the town. The Tileans had brought it on themselves. And it was bad luck about those mercenaries, no question. Ion and Alin, good old boys.

But things like that happened from time to time. Revenge would be good, but Majewa was taking it too far. For good reasons, right enough, he'd be the first to admit it. And she was in charge, what she said went. Vras just wished he had the nerve to say he didn't like it. Not the weapons from her friends, whoever they were (and since when did they need friends? They were the Slaughtermen!), and certainly not being up on the Barlog in the dead of an autumn night.

Scratch, scratch.

Vras shook his blanket off, tried to get to his unsteady feet. It was closer, whatever it was. Irregular scratches and scrapes, scuffing. Footsteps, it sounded like. Over by the door, the one that led out to the deserted quarry yard.

"Hello?" he whispered. The footsteps stopped.

Vras crept towards them as quietly as he could. He drew the blade from his belt, the rough wooden handle splintery against his palm but still comforting.

Someone was in the doorway.

"Who... Who's you?" Vras asked it. He knew he had the words wrong, but it was all he could do to get them out.

The figure hissed softly at him.

He broke into a cold sweat. A wraith. Or it could be Wenclas, prowling the quarry, searching for the way in so he could steal his dead master's sword. Wenclas, who knew too much and only ever stabbed you in the back.

It was coming swiftly towards him.

He pressed his back against the rusting shell of the grinder, gripped the handle of his new blade and tried not to shake.

"Back," he whispered, his dry mouth choking his words. "I'm not afraid!"

The figure slid out of the darkness, hunched over and shrouded in black. Vras sank to his knees and screamed. White hands snaked out and sealed his mouth, grabbed his collar and shook him. Somehow, his blade was on the floor, he'd been enchanted. His arms were numb.

"Shh! Shh, Vras! It's me, it's Pavel! Calm down!"

"Gods! Oh gods, holy gods, I thought..."

"Shh! You'll wake the others."

They both looked up at the hole in the ceiling. Nothing.

"But who's watching?" Vras whispered.

"Listen, we have to get out of here," Pavel whispered back urgently.


"We have to go. Now."


"I saw her. I followed and I saw her."


"I saw who she met. We need to go," Pavel said. There was a fervent look in his eye Vras hadn't seen before.

"But we can't! We can't leave the others," Vras said. "The mercenaries are coming. Majewa said we have to..."

"I'm going. You can come with me if you want. But I'm not staying."

"Don't," Vras begged. "Please don't. We have to stick together, Majewa will..."

"They aren't men," Pavel said. His eyes were bright with fear. "They have heads like rats."


"Rat heads. They dress like men, but they have rat heads and fur. Tails. They were talking."

Vras stared at him. Drunk? Dreaming? But he looked so serious. "Mutants?" he asked, his voice squeaking.

"I don't know and I don't want to. We need to get out of here," Pavel said. "She's asleep upstairs. Come on!"

"But... are they still out there?" Vras said. The night seemed even darker now.

"I don't know. Maybe. I don't care, I'm still going."

"No," Vras said, shrinking back against the grinding machine. "No, not if they're out there. They might catch us."

Pavel had been clutching his collar the whole time, but he let go now. He looked sad. "Sorry, Vras," he said. "I hope you make it back.

"But Majewa will kill you," Vras said miserably. "You know she will."

"She'll have to find me first," Pavel said. "I won't be in Zenres. I'm going. Don't tell the others. Or, well, you can if you like. It doesn't make any difference now."

"Don't," Vras said.

"Goodbye, Vras," Pavel said, and turned to go.

The darkness discharged another cloaked shape, one that was there from nowhere and struck like a snake. Pavel managed to get one hand halfway up, but too slow to make a difference. He crumpled under the blow and fell almost soundlessly. Vras gaped, then realised the figure was now standing over him, a wicked knife in its hand. He pushed himself backwards on his arse, scrabbling in the stone chips.

"No," he said, "please don't!"

But the figure was on him, over him, kneeling and grabbing him, half-lifting him up. I'm going to die, Vras thought. He's going to stab me. He shut his eyes, ready for the pain.

Nothing happened. He opened his eyes again.

"Good choice," Gavril said. "Not running. Cowards run. You're loyal. Good man." He let go of Vras and stood, vanishing his knife and brushing stone dust off his gloves.

"B... Butter?" Vras asked.

"Majewa will sort him tomorrow. And Gilt." Gavril stopped, shook his head and sighed. "Boys today. No respect." Briskly, he turned and hefted Pavel's body over one shoulder. "Come upstairs. Get warm," he said, walking off into the darkness again.

Trembling, Vras followed.


No comments:

Post a Comment