In spite of these unbearable screams, the short thick man maintains his big knife in his victim’s neck. The tip of his tongue relentlessly moistens his lips as he stares ecstatically at the fountain of blood flowing in a wooden bucket. Red stains splash his strong hairy arms and not so white apron. Almost all villagers are gathered around in the fresh autumnal breeze, grim expressions painted on their gaunt faces. A baby is crying. No one tries to comfort him.
The agony seems to drag on forever but probably doesn’t take more than five minutes. Comfortably sitting on his horse, Lord Volheart watches the scene absent-mindedly. He had bitten his lower lip yesterday and keeps licking the small protuberance resulting from the sore. He chides himself mentally for the thousandth time and resolves once more to leave that alone. The last death rattle finally dies away, some more blood falls in the bucket and Lord Volheart orders the dead pig to be untied and loaded on his cart. He lets the five soldiers of his escort direct the manoeuvre and reports his attention to the peasantry.
He deliberately ignores Jedediah, the old toothless beggar who happens to be the elder of this village. His eyes have been attracted elsewhere. Who is this newcomer in an hardened leather outfit leaning on the well’s brink? Not a peasant for sure. Sir Volheart does not let Jedediah begin an all too predictable sweet talk about how difficult the times are. He directly hails the stranger.
The man makes a surprised expression and stands.
“Yes, you. Come.”
A good-natured smile blooms on the round stranger’s face, who gladly obeys. He isn’t very tall, but robust and moving swiftly.
“I know you, don’t I?”
“You do m’lord.”
Sir Volheart digs in his memory. This funny scarecrow face topped with a messy bush of greasy brown hair…
“Strafe! Pug Strafe. You left, what, almost a dozen years ago? Became a mercenary of some sort…”
“That’s it m’lord.”
“I did not imagine you would survive.”
“I’ve learnt toughness m’lord.”
“How do you come to be back?”
“To make a long story short, my company was disbanded after the war and some of us became highwaymen. I quickly realised it was not a suitable career if I wanted to live a little older and decided to come back.”
“Fair enough. But keep quiet around here. I deal harshly with outlaws on my lands.”
An impish expression passes in Pug’s eyes.
“Oh yeah. I’ve seen those two rotting corpses at the bridge. Been told they were unfortunate stragglers from the band that thoroughly plundered the village a few weeks ago.”
Is it irony in the tone? Lord Volheart clenches his fists.
“You better show me respect Strafe! I won’t hesitate to correct you, free man or not. And since you’re back just in time, do not forget to pay your taxes.”
“No problem m’lord. I know how useful they could be. My employers paid us and didn’t allow plundering. Kinda lived on taxes for a few years, sort of.”
The lord turns to old Jedediah who’s been waiting patiently.
Jedediah opens his mouth, but his granddaughter quickly takes a step forward and falls on her knees.
She is a sixteen-year-old sweetheart. Her tousled auburn hair is somewhat dirty and her hands hardened with calluses, but she has a nice regular, albeit lean, face and gorgeous shape. All the more since a lucky angle of view is offering Sir Volheart a plunging view through her slightly loose collar. A warming bump down his lower abdomen forces him to fidget in his saddle and sit further from the pommel. Never mind this uncomfortable position. It is straighter and certainly looks more imposing.
“Yes? What is it you want?”
“I just wish to beg your forgiveness for my suitor Geremy…”
That would be an idea actually. The man is a poacher and well deserves his time in the dungeon. But on the other hand, the quicker the girl gets married, the quicker Lord Volheart can have an opportunity for a good time with her. A little voice in the back of his head wonders whether or not her posture has been intentional to butter him up.
“I’ll think about it.”
Indeed, he will. He even has to force his eyes away from her and chooses to wave a hand in dismissal.
“What about you, Jedediah? I suppose you have loads of difficulties, don’t you?”
“Indeed my Lord. This year has been very rude for us and…”
“Come on, Jedediah, every year is rude for you. When it’s not drought, it’s flood, or diseases. You should be used to this by now, shouldn’t you?”
“But those brigands have stolen or killed many of our animals and devastated the fields. They stole our meagre possessions. Frankly, we may not survive the upcoming winter.”
Lord Volheart shakes his head.
“No way, old man. You owe me a pig each year, plus some fowl and five bags of grain.”
“My Lord, we can’t afford more than three bags. We’ve lost everything else!”
“I’ll tell you what I think. I think you’re quite capable of hiding your stuff from looters.”
He bends over the trembling elder.
“And from me as well. Would be better for you if we don’t find some hidden goods.”
Lord Volheart sends four soldiers to search through the houses. A wave of nervousness diffuses across the sparse crowd as a confirmation of his suspicions. The first man to enter a hut stops at once in the doorway, emits a gurgling and starts dangling in spasmodic gestures, literally suspended to the iron spike running through his neck. His colleagues jolt and reach out their weapons. Bolts fired from other houses pin them down in short order. Lord Volheart hears a struggle behind him. As he turns to check it, Strafe the mercenary wildly jumps toward him with a big studded club and hits him on the side of the head. The impact reverberates through the skull, as if his brain was bouncing inside like a baked custard. He does not feel pain immediately but looses understanding of his environment as he sways and slips from his saddle. His chin and nose meet the ground with a muffled crunch. He is stunned and panic swiftly sizes him. In his desperate attempt at crawling away, he realises that his left foot remains stuck in a stirrup.
He weakly shakes his leg to free it, sits and tries to gather his senses. The world is blurring and whirling. A hot sticky liquid is running down his neck. He has to grab this sword… His right hand clumsily reaches the hilt. He’s trying to draw the blade when four rude hands catch his arms and untie his waist belt. He’s heaved on his feet and hustled forward a few steps.
The shape in front of him doesn’t focus in easily. It turns out to be Strafe, so close that he can even smell his rotten breath.
“Aye m’Lord. I’ll tell you sumthin’ I’ve learnt in those big cities out there. People need to get actual services back for what they give. No, m’lord, deflowering their brides isn’t enough, I’m afraid. Neither are birthrights, nor even God’s grace anymore. Nah, they need things like security, good ruling and that sort o’ thing, see? All in all, you’re a bit outdated, m’lord, with due respect.”
Lord Volheart spits. A trickle of blood drops from his hurting mouth.
“Bastard! I will… I will…”
“Don’t worry with that m’lord. My mates and I thought we might help actually. Perhaps the serfs have not paid completely in vain after all. There’s still a little something to be salvaged.”
The lord tries to make sense out of all this rigmarole. But his ideas have a mushy consistence, only stirred by the big spoon of a growing ache. All he can achieve is an interrogative babble:
Pug Strafe gently pats his cheek.
“Why m’lord, they fed you well, of course.”
Sir Volheart catches a glimpse of a few yellow stumps in the evil smile that widens on the round pimply face before being brutally brought down by a kick behind his knees. His genitals hit a wooden beam. Pain radiates through his belly but he has no time to yell. A hand grasps his hair and violently smashes his face on the beam. His hands and feet are both twisted and firmly tied in crude ropes. He struggles and successfully turns his head to the right. A dirty apron is standing there, and a big hairy hand, with a sharp bloody knife in it.