Sunday, 9 March 2014

Butchers of Men V

Pavel opened his eyes.

It was almost as if he could see the pain, tenebrous purple clouds of it blotting out the edges of his vision. The room was a fuzzy mess. Early cold daylight was spilling in through the roof and windows and mixing with their untidy camp of the night before. The other Slaughtermen stood or sat around, apart from Aurel. Aurel was lying on the floor next to him, grey of face, looking thin and wretched. Gavril stood over them both, sharpening a knife.

Majewa and Tusk were sharing rashers of bacon that Vras was cooking on a well-used skillet over the embers of the fire.

"Naughty boys," Majewa said, looking them over.

"They're young. They didn't mean anything by it, they don't know better," Vras said.

"Not true," Majewa said. "We've brought them up. They do know better. They should know not to pull knives on each other, or sneak around after their elders." She flicked bacon grease at them from the ends of her short, strong fingers.

"Mutants," Pavel croaked. "She got the blades from mutants."

Majewa rolled her eyes. "No I didn't," she said. "Skaven aren't mutants, any more than dwarves or elves are. They're just not like us, that's all."

"They're evil," Pavel said.

"Ah, well, so am I," Majewa said, shrugging.

"We're going to get killed," Pavel said, trying to appeal to the others. They wavered in and out of focus. Something was really wrong with his head. "We can't take on those mercenaries."

"Shut it, Butter," Aurel said. "Majewa knows what she's doing. Just because you're a coward, doesn't mean we can't fight."

"Shut it yourself, Gilt," Tusk grunted. "Too keen on fighting, that one. Butter has a point." Majewa turned her ferret eyes on him, and he looked down, shuffled. "I just mean, ratmen? Why didn't you tell us?"

"It's not good," Vras said fretfully. "They're monsters, aren't they?"

"That ogre in the Sow, wasn't that a monster?" Majewa asked. "Those mercenaries are working for it. The ogre's paying them to come up here and dig up the Barlog. That sound safe to you? You want them bringing down the Black Banner on us? Another warrior's harvest?"

"That's just stories," Aurel said, but Gavril trod slowly on his wrist. Not too heavily, just enough to make him shut up.

"Boy's right there, too," Tusk said, sheepishly.

"No, they're not," Majewa said, and sighed. "Look, boys, I'll level with you. I haven't told you everything, not honestly. That's my fault, I acknowledge that, head held high, and what blame there is I'll shoulder.

"But look, thing is, Blancvik? The Black Banner? They're not stories.

"I don't remember it. None of you do either. Some of the oldest, their grandparents did. Those stories about the mound, how the old warrior Blancvik is buried up there with his sword, his banner and all his knights? How he fought off the darkness from the East, but got cursed in the process? Well, it's all true.

"We're not called Slaughtermen because we kill pigs, all right? We're called Slaughtermen because the last time someone went rattling around the Barlog, digging things up, they found Blancvik's banner and sword. And they took them. And all the old tales turned out to be true. The Sleeper woke up, got his men and came looking. Zenres was the first place they came. Didn't matter if you didn't know where the stolen things were, Blancvik still blamed you. Killed most of the town, they said. Mad dead fucker."

"Pig's teats," Tusk whispered.

"He found it in the end," Majewa said, hushing him with a swift look. "Three towns later, when the folk who lived there threw the thief off the walls so Blancvik would leave them alone. Didn't work for them, he burned their town anyway. But he came home after that.

"So those that were left, when they started rebuilding, they decided that someone should make sure a slaughter like that didn't happen again. Formed a secret band. The Men of the Slaughter, they were called, but that got tiring to say, and it seemed a bit obvious for a secret society. The Slaughtermen seemed better, what with the pigs."

"I never knew that," Tusk said. "How come you never said any of this before?" He looked completely bewildered. Vras too, shaking his head in horror by the fireside. Only Gavril's face hadn't changed. Maybe he knew all this already, Pavel thought. Maybe that was why he was always so quiet.

"You know the thing about secrets?" Majewa said, chewing off another strip of bacon. "The best ones stay that way. You're a good man, Tusk, none better in a brawl. But you can't stop bragging. Best if I don't tell you we're really secret protectors of the town unless I want all the whores in town knowing it. Anyway, what would you rather believe? That we're all that stands between a long-dead monster and the pig farmers of Zenres?"

She looked round at them. Nobody answered, their heads were all hanging down. Even Gavril, although that was because he was flicking imagined dust off his blade. Majewa sighed. Hopeless, but what could you do?

"Or that we're the smartest, toughest, best-respected fighters in the town and that nobody messes with us?"

"We have to fight Blancvik?" Vras said. He'd put the pan down, his hands were shaking so much.

"No, you stupid bugger," Majewa said. "We fight the mercenaries, like we're being paid to do."

"By the rat men," Pavel said. "They're evil!"

Majewa rolled her eyes. "Yes, evil, monsters, blah blah blah. Just so happens they've got weapons, though, and if we're going to stop the mercenaries, that's what we need. And they had gold, too. Which is always nice. May as well gild our nests while we save the world, that's my thinking."

"What does the ogre want with the banner?" Gavril asked.

"No idea, don't really care," Majewa said brightly, standing up and throwing the last end of the bacon out of the window. "Probably wants to eat it. Doesn't make any difference, does it?"

"I don't believe you," Pavel said. "You're making this up."

"Don't think that makes any difference either," she said, leaning on the frame. "Say I am, and it's all just my way of making sure my brave boys stay up here and fight with Mother Sow. Or say the rats are paying me to steal the banner for them instead. Which I wouldn't," she added, turning back to the Slaughtermen to reassure them. "I'd take their gold and say I would, then bring them a blanket on a stick and say it was the banner, then stab them while they were sniffing it over."

She looked back out of the window.

"What wouldn't make any difference is that we'd still all be up here in the quarry, and the mercenaries would still be coming over the edge of the hill right now."

"What?" Tusk said, spitting out a gristly mouthful.

"Shit!" Vras said, falling over as he went for his bow. Gavril said nothing, but strung a bow and went to the edge of the window, carefully peered round the side.

"Yes!" Aurel said, scrambling for his pack and weapons.

"So what about you, young Butter?" Majewa asked, ambling over to him. "What's it going to be?"

Pavel stared up at her.

"Can I count on you to do the right thing, get up and fight with us? Protect Zenres from the madness under this old mountain, try and kill these foreign bastards? Get a little revenge for Ion and Alin, and a little richer in the process? Or do I let Aurel stick you with his blade, just so I'm sure he's capable?"

It wasn't really much of a choice. Pavel crawled to his feet, tried to grip his blade with conviction. Majewa smirked approvingly, and was about to turn away, but Pavel stopped her. He actually put a hand out and grabbed her shoulder, surprising himself almost as much as her.

"I'll fight," he said. "But then I'm out. I'm leaving. I don't want to be here any more."

Majewa raised her eyebrows. "Well, now there's stating the obvious. Hey Aurel, tell you something else about butter?"

"It's yellow?" Aurel was crouched by the head of the stairs, gripping his knife.

"No, Gilt, something else." She brushed Pavel's hand off her, picked up her bow and started stringing it. "It runs when things get hot, and there's never as much around as you want when you're poor."

And that was the last she spoke to him.


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