Dirty Work





Backstabber Creen squeezed the purse at his hip, and the coins jangled softly, muffled by wool. He closed his eyes for a moment and thought of Calyphi; the sun, the sand, and the deep green sea. Then the wind pressed his damp black clothes to his skin, and he was back in the North, in the middle of winter, on a hillside where the rain had washed snow into sludge.

He shivered.

His breath was a convoy of fugitive ghosts.

He lifted his spyglass to look at the shack, the tree like a tumbledown gallows beside it. He heard the faint moans of pain from within; caught a faint whiff of the godsforsworn stench.

If he wanted the other half of his payment, enough to retire on, he’d have go up there and finish the job.

And he fully intended to.

But even for him, this felt a bit bloody low.

* * *

It hardly seemed fair, thought Soft Norris, to make it through two days of the hardest, grimmest skirmishing without even the slightest of wounds, only to be struck down at the end by a session of trenchgut. He’d always carved a tally of his kills on his arms, and had made several fresh notches, but now he felt like he’d need even more in his belt.

He grunted and spat.

He had a weak-sounding war-name, given to him when he was much tubbier and more tender than he would have preferred — the way his own son was now. But he didn’t have any weight he wanted to lose any more, it was solid-packed muscle. And he’d worked bloody hard to gain it.

He’d done his utmost to overturn his earlier image in other ways as well, and maybe even gone a bit too far, at times. He’d made enemies where he probably needn’t have, and left behind a pile of dead that could have reached halfway up Mount Yaggerhorn. And it was entirely possible, if not downright likely, that some of his actions had offended the gods. Pissing on harvest altars before chopping them into kindling, for example, was generally considered pretty terrible form.

Even so, Norris wasn’t sure he deserved such punishment as this.

He groaned again and buckled forwards.

He could only be grateful that the gods hadn’t seen fit to smite anyone else in like manner, and that the second hole in this two-pit shack was currently unoccupied. Morale was suffering enough, in this weather, without his men seeing their leader so frail and debased.

It could seriously damage his hard-earned reputation, and what had a man got left without that?

* * *

Down Creen went, right on his backside, then on his left side, then rolling over.

He sat up, shaken, covered in mud.

At least, he hoped it was only mud.

He glowered accusingly at his grime-covered boots. He’d had them specially made, from finest Tarrinesi leather, for sneaking along hallways, shimmying up walls, scurrying over slated and thatched roofs alike. They were not meant for prowling in quagmires like this.

Pay had been scarce of late, though, and by the time he’d dealt with his rent, and the foreign food he preferred, there hadn’t been much left for an alternative pair. Let alone for anything else he might want.

That was the only thing that had brought him to accept a job from Grubber Horls.

Desperation.

He checked for the purse, relieved that it hadn’t got lost in the mire. And that his longest, sharpest knife was still tucked there beside it. That was all that he’d need to get the job done.

As he picked himself up, pushing on towards his target, the wind strengthened again, and his clothes felt even colder and claggier against his skin. He shivered, and those ghosts were departing more and more rapidly, losing formation as they fled back past his cheek.

He only wished that Grubber had put him to work a few days ago, rather than first trying to beat Norris, the scourge of three fiefdoms, in open bloody war. That wasn’t honour, it was stupidity and ego. Creen could have travelled to Calyphi already, if his employer hadn’t been such a pig-headed git.

He could be enjoying the sun, and the sand, not to mention the women. He could have embarked on a new stage in his life, lounging around, becoming a rake, a raconteur — hell, maybe even a romantic.

Or perhaps just a nobody.

He could have already dived into the deep green sea, and let it wash away the years of blood, let it wash away his name.

* * *

Soft Norris, experiencing a brief lull in his gastric distress, was staring at the sword that was propped against the wall. It might have been the symbol of his power, his victories, but it didn’t look too impressive, not in this dingy shack. It was just a piece of steel, inside a piece of leather, with a bit more leather round the handle, and a polished bit of stone on top.

Granted, the stone was jet, and in any other light it seemed to glow around the edges like the sun in mid-eclipse. But it still wasn’t much.

It had done an awful lot of damage, though, these past fourteen years. This past couple of days. He’d sliced clean through an enemy’s neck this morning, with a swing so powerful that he’d nearly decapitated the poor bastard’s shieldmate as well. The look on that second soldier’s face had been really quite something, and Norris could only shrug at him in sympathy and surprise — he wasn’t sure how it had happened either.

How it kept happening to others, but never to him.

It hardly seemed fair.

Fourteen years he’d been fighting battles like this, and yet he’d barely a scar to show for his struggles — save for those that he’d notched on his forearms himself. He’d only ever broken his nose the one time, and that was his own fault as well, for running up a staircase whilst deep in his cups.

His fortune had become so notorious that some people had claimed that he couldn’t be killed; that each mark on his arm was a fresh ward against death. Which was certainly a helpful rumour, and several bards had written ballads to disseminate it further still.

But they were men with fine clothes and soft hands and soft hearts; men who’d never been to battle; men, more than likely, who had never caught trenchgut.

They didn’t have a bloody clue.

If this session carried on too much longer, he thought, he’d be tempted to use that sword on himself.

* * *

The stench grew even worse as Creen prowled closer. The groans of distress became even more haunting. He shivered, and his own stomach twisted, and the ghosts of his breath made their frantic escape.

Such weak and troubled sounds might have fit the war-name of the man he’d been sent here to kill, but they didn’t fit the stories.

He’d heard them all, and the songs, and even watched through his spyglass earlier, as a great beastlike warrior had butchered all who came near. This was a master of battle, and a truly exceptional tyrant in an age that seemed utterly beleaguered with them; undoubtedly one of the most feared men alive.

That being the case, perhaps Creen should have been thrilled, even proud, that he’d be the one to put an end to Soft Norris. And yet it made him uneasy, the thought of taking a life — even that one — in so squalid a manner.

He’d always maintained there could be an art to this business, and even a dignity; a drop of poison in a golden chalice; a single arrow let loose from several streets distant; a daring infiltration past a hundred armed guards. But there was no art in this. The ballads composed about tonight would be of a mocking and grotty-minded nature, which neither he nor his target really deserved.

What had deserve got to do with it, though?

Had he honestly deserved to be war-named Backstabber?

By the gods, but if he could change that name right now, he would. It was just the one bloody time; it wasn’t as if he’d made a habit of it, or a trademark. And it had only happened then because the target had turned to run after Creen began his lunge.

Alas, his target was kind of an important somebody, an Eastern Prince Regent, and so the epithet had stuck.

As he’d been stuck since, doing the dirty work, which only seemed to get dirtier all of the time. Simply because of men like his current employer, who couldn’t admit when they’d made a mistake, and either try saying sorry or just letting it go.

* * *

Grubber Horls. Stubborn as his father had been and twice as bloody stupid. Norris really didn’t see why he’d had to choose now — the middle of winter, for gods’ sake! — to start picking fights.

Everyone knew that this was the worst time for battles. The ground was always treacherous, if not from mud then from ice; swords could stick in scabbards for just a moment too long; arrows could wilt and even vanish in a blizzard; men’s tongues had even been known to stick to their visors. On top of all that, there was the risk of frost-fever, which afflicted a surprising number of berserkers, who tended to feel that clothing was only an impediment to their rage.

Whilst Norris knew and welcomed bloodlust, he’d never understood that practice at all — turning blue, bollock naked, was hardly the kind of glorious ending the ancestors admired.

Then again, dying of the savage shits wasn’t exactly much better.

He cramped and strained and spasmed forwards.

He steadied himself, trying to steal a few breaths before the next shudder came.

The point was, he thought, by way of distraction, that if Grubber had some unforgiveable grievance, he could just have raised it for discussion and perhaps they might have found some other way to resolve it, or at least postpone dealing with it all until spring.

But no. Bloody Grubber Horls had to march out and stick his standard in a field, and send an emissary instead to deliver a series of very loud and vulgar threats outside of Norris’ front gates. And threats could not be allowed to stand. Especially not when his son was in the great hall alongside him.

He had to teach the lad the right way of doing things, the strong way, in the hopes that the podgy little bugger would soon prove himself tough, and worthy of following in his footsteps as Chief.

And the sooner and tougher the better, Norris thought, shuddering, increasingly concerned that his own reign might be done.

* * *

During a relatively large pause between the whimpers of anguish, Creen thought he could hear singing from elsewhere in camp. There were pinpricks of firelight from the other side of the hill, and dark smoke from wet tinder. The lyrics told of how Soft Norris was invincible, and bragged that giving him such a war-name was the greatest, harshest joke that the gods had ever played.

But, Creen reminded himself, he had done away with invincible targets before. And they hadn’t been disadvantaged by trenchgut, either.

He tried not to feel sullied yet again by the fact Norris was.

He tried not to shiver.

Tried to block out the music and stay fixed on his task.

As fortune would have it, in their hurry, whoever had thrown this heap together had used a tree-trunk for support, and he could hardly have asked for a better route up. And whilst everyone — apart from Grubber Horls, apparently — knew that the middle of winter was the worst time for all this, it did mean there were no leaves, no birds’ nests, no squirrels, nothing for him to rustle against; and there was no snow on the branches either, thanks to the day’s heavy rain.

He approached from the opposite side to the moon, so as not to cast a shadow through any gaps in the walls, and vaulted up onto the first strong-looking bough. It took his weight, and he shimmied along it until he was overhanging the roof.

The stench up there was even worse, and it required a serious effort — worthy of a song in itself — not to violently and loudly retch. But Creen managed it. Just. He risked a short breath, and the ghosts raced away as fast as they could.

He envied their freedom, but he’d be following soon.

He could finally see his target, between the rickety slats.

He lowered himself onto that planking, waiting for a moment to be sure it wouldn’t creak, then drew his longest, sharpest knife from the sheath beside his purse; keenly aware of the weight of that purse, the first half of his payment for his last ever job.

And if it also happened to be his dirtiest, well, at least he knew why he was doing it.

He closed his eyes for a moment and thought of Calyphi; the sun, the sand, and the deep green sea.

He reached out as though towards that water, then felt the joist beneath him snap.

* * *

Norris was on the verge of cramping again, when there was an almighty clatter, and then there, in a jumble of timber, was a man dressed in black; his muddy boots kicking up from the unoccupied hole.

Well, not so unoccupied now.

Rarely taken with the impulse to question his enemies, Norris slashed his sword hard into the trespasser’s side.

When he pulled the blade clear, it looked a bit more impressive, the gore shining in the moonlight that now flooded the shack.

There was something else that looked even more appealing, however, dangling from the corpse’s hip. He grabbed the purse, almost ruefully, just before the lower half of the body toppled free of the rest.

Loosening the drawstrings, he peered inside, quietly astonished by what he found; he’d never been very good with numbers, beyond the tally of kills that he kept on his arms, and yet even he could work out this was a shitload of gold.

He felt strangely gratified that Grubber had deemed him worthy of so high a price; after all, that was the true mark of a man’s reputation. And no doubt there was more promised for when the deed had been done.

Of course, the assassin must have been highly regarded as well, in order to command such a gargantuan fee. He must have carried out a huge amount of jobs, all over the world, without being captured; had probably spent decades improving his craft. Perfecting it.

Only to wind up dying like that.

It hardly seemed fair, thought Soft Norris.

But then, he reflected, as his guts roiled yet again, just what in this godsforsworn world ever was?





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