Some men wore a sword and called themselves a warrior. Barbas called himself no such thing. Fighting, killing, breaking a few skulls, it was all just part of business to him. Although he kind of liked hearing others call him a butcher.
Two of the men were talking about him now, behind his back. Fince, probably setting the new boy straight on a few matters. Every new recruit was the same, full of questions about the boss. Barbas couldn’t care less, as long as they kept it quiet.
They were closing in and he didn’t want their prey getting spooked, didn’t want to give them the chance to turn a simple spot of killing into a fight.
Like he always said, he was no warrior. He had a reputation to maintain.
Barbas was a monstrous black bulldog of a man. His skin was pasty, of a complexion that had seen every kind of weather but sunshine. There was ruddiness in his cheeks, fire from too much blood constantly on the rise, with nothing that could be called warmth. There was brown in his eyes, the colour of mud, hard as flint. But the rest of him was black. Thick hair and beard that was all one mass and might have been dipped in pitch, more black hair across the backs of his hands and knuckles. There was steel too, about his person – the axe and sword at his belt, buckles and studs decorating his leather armour – but they weren’t there for any brightness they added.
His back was impossibly broad, like a dam. He clenched and unclenched his hands all the time, as though they were unhappy without a weapon to hold.
It made Dayl nervous as he watched the man walk ahead of them along the forest path. Not for the first time, he wondered what he was doing here. But this band of ne’er-do-wells needed an archer and he needed a job.
“You’ll do fine,” said Fince, flashing his gold tooth and practically beating the air out of Dayl’s lungs with a slap to the back. “At least, you’d better do.”
Dayl nodded. He was very aware that this was a trial period. He trusted in his prowess with the bow, but he knew he had to show these men something more than archery skills.
“Otherwise,” Fince was saying, jerking a thumb towards Barbas, “he’ll kill you as soon as look at you. Sooner, if he can. Oh, don’t get me wrong, he’d not be shy of watching your face squirm, but he does like to stick a man in the back. Specially if it’s a man who’s let him down.”
Fince was a real piece of work, although no artist or craftsman was likely to claim responsibility for him. Gouged cheeks, stubbled scalp, cold-burning eyes that squinted out from between enough scars that some of them actually crossed paths. In a shabby jumble of leather and chainmail, he wore a bow and a jagged-edged greatsword slung over hunched shoulders.
There were a dozen men in all in Barbas’ crew and although all of them were prettier than Fince, there was no mistaking the kind of band he – Dayl – had signed up with. So he was under no illusions, if he was going to have any hope of fitting in with this lot, he was going to have to do more than shoot straight.
He was going to have to kill and take pleasure in it.
Barbas spat. The glade stank of harmony and tranquillity. It was the kind of place where peace had taken root and spread like weeds or mildew.
A clearing in a shallow bowl of the forest, the trees were like placid librarians, preserving the stillness, allowing only modest quantities of sunlight through to dapple the ground and sparkle on the surface of a small pool. Breezes whispered through the canopy overhead, gently calling for quiet. Even the few fallen trees looked like they had decided to lie down for a rest and let the moss and ivy play freely over their ancient trunks.
The stealth with which Barbas and his men moved in was a different breed of peace. A sinister, insidious thing, like a disease.
The creatures sensed it, lifting their heads and searching about. They stood beside the pool, the female torn between thirst and nerves. The male nuzzled its mate, attempting to calm her.
Good luck with that, laughed Barbas inside his head.
He motioned to his men to keep their distance as he continued down the gentle slope. The archers, new boy included, should be fanning out, picking their positions and notching up their arrows. Their first shots would win this or lose it. If they missed, well, they had best hope to their respective gods that Barbas ended up impaled on one of these animals’ horns. And if the new boy needed any incentivising, he should just ask himself why they’d had to find themselves a replacement archer.
Unicorns. Barbas had learned to hate them. In that sense, yes, this was more than just business. But there was no sense in holding a grudge against a beast. That’s all they were ultimately, for all their alleged majesty. Moonlight hides and gleaming horns be damned. They were just beasts. Beasts that happened to have, in a manner of speaking, a very handsome price on their heads.
Barbas stepped out into the open, bold as brass.
The beasts tossed their manes, huffing and puffing in indignation at the intrusion. Barbas fancied he could see the decision – fight or flight – weighing in their eyes.
His clenching hands grabbed for his axe and sword, drawing both weapons at once.
That was the signal.
Dayl let fly.
From this distance, the eye was little more than a black bead on the moon-hided beast. It had been easy to tell himself he’d seen no light in it, that it was just a target, a marker. A swift, flashing flight and the arrow found that marker and his part in the murder was done.
The animal reared and screamed, a raw, ragged and hellish sound. Kicking the air, it thrashed its head wildly as though fighting to shake the arrow loose. Fince, somewhere to Dayl’s right, was laughing, a cruel and ugly cackle but nothing that could compete with the bloodcurdling din tearing through the forest like a hurricane of torment. Double the hell now, as Dayl’s victim had a companion in its death throes: the mare, her majestic head pierced with three arrows. Messy placement, messy death.
Not messy enough for Barbas’ tastes, apparently. Before the stallion had toppled, he was moving in and raising his axe for a swing at the beast’s neck.
Dayl busied himself shouldering his bow. Men were charging from the trees, descending on the glade to join in the butchery. Dayl picked his way slowly down the slope, pretending to watch his footing. A chill tingle at the back of his neck prompted him to glance around. Several times. Probably nothing, but the more excuses to look elsewhere the better.
Before he’d reached the edge of the clearing, the unicorns had fallen silent. He hadn’t even heard their great bodies crashing to the forest floor, above the roars of the killers.
Dayl was a hunter. He’d killed animals without it feeling like murder.
He stepped up beside Barbas and assumed a heartless expression as he looked down on the carcasses. Blood was dripping from Barbas’ axe and sword and running in rivers from the dead unicorns to the pool. The rest of the men were sheathing their weapons, some of them laughing, some patting each other on the back.
“Our new boy did good,” said Fince, who was drawing a large knife and eyeing the unicorn horns greedily.
“He did,” agreed Barbas. He gave his lieutenant the nod and Fince crouched to work on liberating the first of the horns. Barbas’ gaze was fixed primarily on Dayl though. “The lad seems a little pale, mind you. Troubled, are you, boy?”
“No,” said Dayl quickly. “Nothing like that.” He recalled the nervous feeling he’d had and felt it all over again. He scanned the trees around the edge of the clearing. “I don’t know. I just have this feeling we’re being watched.”
Barbas snorted. “That’s a conscience, lad. Get rid of it. You’ll not be needing it where your career is headed.”
Dayl nodded, knowing he would have to work on that.
He forced himself to watch as Fince applied himself to his bloody harvest.
Barbas was wrong.
Two young eyes, peering out from the undergrowth, had witnessed everything.
[To Be Continued…]