One bad apple
As dawn painted the sky red like fresh lava, Marrik drew his whetstone along the cutting edge of his dagger and surveyed the village across the field. The mad ape, that’s what they called him behind his back. Something about his arms being long enough to swing from kill to kill. He glanced at his arms and shrugged.
A black crow landed on the trampled grass. He could have sworn it stared at him expectantly, as if it knew what was about to happen and was urging him to get on with his business, however nasty it might be.
Marrik studied the mound that stood about two-hundred feet away, raised quickly by farmers to repel an attack from his men. This one wasn’t shabby. It even had pikes, but they were already starting to sag in the mud. He’d broken fortifications held by soldiers in plate and mages that spat ice and pissed lightning. Farmers in breeches wielding pitchforks were not a problem. The fools should have just paid. Then again, a battle could go sideways with the swing of a blade or a well aimed arrow. He rubbed his left thigh, where an old scar always hurt before battle.
The rooster cried. Marrik spat, turned and marched back to his camp, the frozen dirt crunching beneath his boots. Still winter, but not for long.
The men were up and ready, the smell of smoke and bacon wafting between the tents. Some newer recruits knuckled their right cheek as he passed by, thinking a salute was required. Marrik snorted and waved them on. Runts. If any were still standing after today, he’d start training them.
The banner of the Grim Coasters — an axe shattering stone on a black field — flew at the heart of his camp. What a life; a bunch of starved dogs that kill for any bone. He glanced over his shoulder at the farmstead beyond the field. A contract is binding, and those farmers owed his employer their taxes.
Deelil rose from her seat by a fire, one side of her head shaven clean, the long hair on the other side in a neat, single braid that reached down to the leather pauldron on her shoulder. A competent squad leader. He would know, he trained her himself. She smiled and offered him her mug. The black liquid she called coffee smelled sweet but tasted bitter. Marrik drank it all at once. Always best to deal with unpleasantries decisively.
“We going over that wall, sir?” Deelil asked.
“First, we’re going to knock and ask.”
Deelil frowned. “Alright. Just say go, sir.”
He handed her back the mug. “Tell Owan to finish up.”
Deelil nodded, set her mug down, and jogged away. Owan would be outside of the camp, preparing whatever it was he needed to prepare to rain lightning on their enemy. Surely the man was touched by the elements. It was a good thing Owan was on his side.
Marrik looked at the men and women around the camp, no two breastplates the same, each with a weapon looted from a fallen comrade or slain enemy. Maybe things were better for the Grim Coasters back west, where there were noble houses and land disputes to be settled by the sword, but here, in the frosty wastelands, amongst the ruins of their forebears, where bears were white and giants raided every summer, he would have to fight with what he could scrape together.
“What have you done?”
Had anyone else shouted, Marrik would have left the men to settle it between themselves. This shout didn’t come from just anyone. Aldrik was the cook. Food was morale. Therefore, Aldrik was morale. Since it was Aldrik who shouted, he went and took a look.
Marrik snarled the instant he saw the scene. By the large fires laid out to roast and cook for the band, Aldrik stood paunch to toe with a new recruit, Jessa, who had white fluff on his breeches. That brat had been trouble from the moment Marrik took this contract from his father, a fox of a man who had stood fists on desk as they negotiated in that dusty keep with the jittery servants.
“One more thing,” the old fox said, after shaking on the price.
“I don’t like amendments to a deal,” Marrik said.
The old fox smiled and nodded. “Not a change. My boy, he needs to get out into the world, see what it’s like to enforce the laws. I’ll pay you an additional fifty gold coins for his… training?”
A week’s wages to take a boy on a field trip was good coin, and Marrik had plans for that gold. “Only as a conscript,” Marrik said and they shook on it, firmly. Today, Marrik would gladly pay fifty gold pieces to be rid of the brat. His presence alone irked his Coasters.
“I’ll ask you again: did you do this?”
Jessa’s pitch became shrill as he raised his voice. “So what if I did? You work for my father, and that means all this is mine.”
Marrik heard Aldrik’s knuckles crack as the chef squeezed his fist and shook his head. He should let Aldrik beat the boy and consider it a part of his training, but he couldn’t risk losing his chef to the whims of an angry lord.
“Take a step back,” Marrik barked and marched forward.
Jessa folded his arms across his chest with a smirk on his face.
“I mean you, Jessa. Step back. Now.”
The smirk turned to a glare directed at Marrik, but Marrik got right up in Jessa’s face, forcing the boy to shuffle back two steps. Marrik hounded him, but the boy stood his ground.
“You walk where I point, and you eat when I say. Now walk.”
Jessa looked up at him defiantly. “This man—”
The crack of Marrik’s backhand across the boy’s face was satisfying, as we’re the approving grunts from the onlookers. Jessa stumbled backwards and his hand dropped to his dagger. All around the rasping of swords being loosened in their sheathes sounded. The brat may have balls, but Marrik could not have his command questioned by this runt. Marrik fixed his hardest stare on Jessa, but the boy’s gaze had gone so cold that for a moment, he hesitated. Not the reaction he had expected.
“Who do you think you are?” Jessa said, coolly.
“You’re a conscript of the Grim Coasters, boy,” Marrik said, “that means your gods, your father and your mother might as well be dead. You answer to me, and when I say fight, you fight, when I say run, you run, and when I say back off, you back off. Understood?”
Jessa stared at him, eyes void of any emotion, hand on the hilt of his dagger.
Marrik stepped forward, gaze locked with Jessa’s. “Is that understood?”
Finally, Jessa averted his gaze and nodded.
“I can’t hear you,” Marrik barked.
Marrik cocked an eyebrow, but Jessa raised his chin defiantly, his expression unreadable, until that smirk returned to his face.
“Good. Now go get ready for battle.”
Marrik did not like the way Jessa looked at him as the boy walked away. Given a chance, Jessa would put that dagger in his back, he was sure of it. When the brat had disappeared between the tents, Marrik turned to Aldrik.
“What was that about?” he asked.
“See for yourself,” Aldrik said and pointed to the chicken coop.
A pile of feathers dredged in blood lay by a stump of wood with a handaxe lodged in the spine of a dead hare. Two chicken feet lay in the dirt, the chicken itself still flapping the one wing that was attached to it.
“Found him at it,” Aldrik said, “just hacking at the creature, like it was a game.”
Marrik shook his head, grabbed the suffering chicken, snapped its neck, then handed it to Aldrik and made a sign to ward off evil.
“Burn ’m, I don’t want it haunting the men.”
Aldrik nodded. Marrik barked orders to the mercenaries who were pretending they had not stared at his conversation with Jessa, and marched away. Some people were sick in the head, and he’d be glad to be rid of this one.
Deelil returned not long after. Owan’s black robe swept the dirt as he walked by her side. He read from a tome that hovered before him as he walked, as his hands manipulated some force Marrik could not perceive with his eyes, but the fact that his hackles were raised told him that Owan was practising his magic.
“You’ve made your preparations?” Marrik asked.
Good, Marrik thought, then they could get this over with.
Shake the tree
This village had a fine smith and a skilled carpenter, because the wooden gate that led into the town was sturdy. Solid iron bands attached to smooth oakwood doors that stood as tall as two men. A cool breeze swept the road and Marrik shivered. He held a white banner as he stood before the gate. Jessa stood to his left, Deelil to his right. Surely Owan was keeping an eye on everything beyond the range of these farmer’s javelins.
Marrik turned to Jessa. “Your father asked me to train you, so pay attention.”
Jessa shrugged, spat and gave Marrik that cold stare again. Marrik pitied the people who would one day suffer this brat’s lordship.
Marrik looked to the farmer hiding in the wooden watchtower and said: “Tell whoever is in charge to come to the gate.”
“We’ve nothing to say to you,” the farmer replied, and folk cheered within the mound.
“Thirty men stand ready to raid your town. They will show no mercy. Tell your leaders to pay the taxes owed and we will be on our way.”
“Pay with what? Roaming bandits burn our grain shed, and the lord does nothing. Direwolves hunt in our meadows, and the lord does nothing. We have nothing to give, because the lord does nothing.”
“You’ll hang for insulting my father!” Jessa screamed.
Marrik resisted the urge to backhand the boy again. Instead, he raised a finger and stared Jessa down.
“Ooh, the old man has sent his chick to take care of a cocks business!” the farmer hooted, and more jeers erupted from behind the gate. “You old enough to be off your ma’s tits, boy?”
Jessa’s face flushed red and he stepped forward.
“Stand back,” Marrik barked. Jessa stopped and turned to him.
“I want you to raze this place to the ground. We will make an example of all of them, do you hear me? Nobody insults my father like that. Nobody.”
“Get in line or I’ll have Deelil here escort you back to the camp and tie you to a tree, understood?”
Deelil cracked her knuckles and smiled. Jessa growled as he stepped back to stand by Marrik, but red spots burnt his neck.
“I will ask you one last time,” Marrik said, “to bring your leader forward so we can settle the outstanding taxes and be on our way.”
Something plopped into the dirt by his feet, then again and again, until Jessa howled. Marrik found the boy’s face and shoulder covered in dung. Folk behind the gate laughed and chittered as if they’d won the battle. He turned back to face the gate before the boy would notice his smile.
“Very well,” Marrik said, “just remember that you chose what comes next.”
He marched back to the mercenaries, who stood arrayed in three squares, each three men wide and deep. Owan stood a bit further back on a little mound, probably something he had raised from the earth himself. Marrik lowered the white flag and nodded.
Owan immediately raised his arms, and his voice whispered across the field, then his words swelled until his incantation boomed all around and dark clouds gathered overhead, lightning crackling as they floated with intention, casting the approach to the village in shadow.
The first lightning bolt struck the tower. At least that was what was supposed to happen. Marrik frowned as Owan commanded whatever power he was wielding to strike again. This time something shimmered right over the tower as the lightning bolt disappeared like a spear thrust into water.
Marrik turned to Deelil and shouted: “They have one!”
She grinned “So we’re going over the mound?”
“I’ll race you there.”
As Owan hurled lightning down on the village’s magical defences, Marrik drew his sword and led the Grim Coasters through a volley of javelins and a hail of rocks, up the mound. He gritted his teeth as his boot sank into the soft mud. This was going to cost him good mercenaries.
Deelil was already over the mound, deftly removing the pitchfork from a farmer’s hand before knocking him out with a single blow. He’d owe her a gold piece for beating him to it. The moment his mercenaries were over the mound, the defender’s resolve broke and they fled.
“Round them up,” Marrik bellowed, “and keep it clean. We’re here to collect taxes and dead folk can’t pay.”
Finally a lightning bolt struck and Marrik ducked. The gate splintered as mud and cobblestones showered the street. The shockwave shoved him sideways and he shielded his face with his hand. Wailing men lay twisted and broken, some souls already taken by the Ferryman, as others howled, clutching burnt or broken limbs. A girl lay face down in the mud, her skull cleaved by one of the iron bands from the gate.
He turned and crossed his fists over his head. Despite the distance, Owan could see him with his enhanced senses. The cloud overhead disappeared and Owan began to amble across the field. Marrik shook his head, turned, and scanned the area for Jessa. The brat must have run after his Coasters. He’d find him soon enough. Time to finish this business.
The midday sun was yellow as hay and one crow was perched on the ridge of a roof. More flew over the bloodied folk gathered in the town square. They stood in lines, while mercenaries amongst them cleaned and dressed their wounds. Some accepted, others refused. Stubborn folk couldn’t see the fight was over. Marrik respected their resolve, but they should have known better.
He counted his men. Two dead and seven wounded. Deelil wasn’t on the square, so he turned to Owan, who looked tired as he always did after using magic. Wielding such power was more tiring than swinging a sword, or so Marrik had been told.
“Do you know who was giving you a hard time?”
Owan shook his head. “Could have been a caster or a fool with an expensive scroll. I doubt we’ll ever find out.”
“Best be wary. If they have a caster on this square, this might not be over.”
A shout carried across the square, and when Marrik found its source he tensed immediately. Deelil was dragging Jessa by the scruff of his neck, around the crowd, towards him. As they got closer, he saw the boy’s bloody hands and filthy clothes. Shit.
“What’s going on here?” Marrik said.
“Shut up,” Marrik said and nodded at Deelil.
She glanced at Jessa, then back to him. Something about the look in her eyes made Marrik weary.
She said: “You’d better see this for yourself, boss.”
A murmur rippled through the crowd, as another figure stumbled into the town square. One arm limp, an eye beaten shut and blood matting his clothes, he looked like a dead man walking. “He killed them,” this man shouted as a mercenary grappled him, “in the school, by Celestia, he butchered them!”
Marrik barked an order as the folk in the square began to move, then he grabbed Jessa by his collar and jerked him up, off the ground, until his feet trod in the air.
“What have you done?” he demanded from the cackling boy.
More trouble than it’s worth
The trail of bloody boot prints that lead away from the dark school interior did not prepare Marrik for the savage sight within. In a steady splop-splop, blood dripped from the ceiling. By the entrance lay half of a discarded walking cane, the other end was used as a spike on this place’s elderly defender. Further in, a sprawled doll drowned in a puddle of blood, right beside the spilled contents of a handbag.
Marrik turned from the entrance, dropped to his knees and retched. Then he turned to Jessa, who Deelil still held by the scruff of his neck.
“Did you do this?”
“These wretches got what they deserve.”
“Wretches?” Marrik bellowed and slammed his fist into the dust. Deelil’s frown creased her brow. She took a step back and tried to pull Jessa with her, as Marrik rose and swaggered towards Jessa.
“Easy boss,” she said.
“Boy, did a spirit from Nessus appear and command you to do this?” Marrik said.
Jessa lifted his chin defiantly. “This message will be received by all my subjects.”
“Which message is that, boy?”
“It’s a bit hard to put into words.”
“I’ll give you a message that’s hard to put into words.” Marrik said and lunged. Deelil jerked Jessa out of the way and got between the brat and him.
Marrik growled, and swatted aside the hand she put on his chest, using her momentum to toss her behind him. Jessa took another step back, his smirk turning into scowl.
“You… you work for my father,” the brat said.
“Your father ain’t here.”
Marrik’s first punch cracked the boy’s nose, and as his hands came up, he winded him with a fist to the gut. Jessa doubled over and Marrik grabbed him by his hair, dragging the screaming and biting brat towards the town square.
Deelil caught up with him. “This ain’t good for our reputation, boss.”
“This is the only thing that will wash some of that blood off our reputation.”
“He ain’t not worth it.”
Marrik ignored her, and tossed Jessa face first before the folk held hostage in the square and planted his boot on the boy’s back, hard. The heat in their glares burnt his skin, but he was already hot with his own rage.
“Are the children safe?” someone shouted, and a murmur rippled through the crowd.
“Stand down, Coasters,” Marrik barked. When some of his mercenaries looked at him in surprise and didn’t move, he repeated himself. Confused, they lowered their weapons and stepped away from their hostages.
Marrik pointed at a woman, with enough grey in her hair for her to have some authority. “You, come here.”
“Boss?” Deelil said, but Marrik ignored her.
“I said: come here!”
Hesitantly, the woman rose and slipped past the mercenary guarding her group. Marrik pointed at Jessa.
“Do you know who this is?”
The woman nodded.
“Good. Then you know what will happen if you judge him?”
She stared at Marrik, confusion morphing into hard resolve. Her lips thinned as she gave one firm nod and fixed her glare on Jessa.
The brat squirmed under his boot. “Nonono… wait, listen… my father will…”
Marrik stomped down once and Jessa yelped.
“This is going to get some of us killed, boss,” Deelil said.
Marrik twisted his torso to face her. “Coasters don’t kill children, understood?”
“We have a contract. Abadar will be––”
“Unlike that brute, I have a soul. Get them ready to march, Deelil.” Marrik turned back to the grey haired woman. “We’re leaving now. Pay your taxes or don’t, I don’t care. But be clear about this: the Coasters did not hurt the innocent here, this boy did. Do we understand each other?”
“Clear as the sky is blue,” the woman said.
Marrik looked down at Jessa and shook his head. What kind of seed breeds a callous monster in a human body? He waited for his mercenaries to march from the square before lifting his boot from Jessa’s back. Almost as one, the folk rose and rolled towards him as he turned to follow his troops.
This day would surely haunt him for the rest of his life.
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