Company Man

Company Man

 

This is a revised version of my story. The originally-published version is here.


 

Kraygus sat motionless on a log in the middle of the burned-out remains of his farm. The charred corpse of his wife stared up at him. Maybe it was the way the flesh had cooked, but it almost looked like she was smiling, as if to joke, see what I have to put up with when you’re not home? He’d been away in town when they came, arguing with the grain factors over crop prices and visiting his old friend—

Bullshit, he thought, no point lying now. You were fucking your girlfriend. If you’d come straight home…what? He’d have been killed right along with her. Kraygus supposed he should weep, or rage, something. But he just sat there staring, too much in shock perhaps.

Eventually someone came and laid a hand on his shoulder. Tykksen, his neighbor. “Gods, I’m so sorry…”

“Where are they?”

“Who? You mean…the ones done this? Listen, don’t go adding your own death to it, ain’t no point—”

“Where. Are. They.”

Tykksen sighed. “They went north, along the river. Burning every farm they hit. Ain’t no regular soldiers these— reavers’ only job is to tear down the duke’s lands. Just as mean, though.”

Kraygus stood, slowly. His legs ached from sitting so long.

“Don’t get involved in this bloody war Kraygus! You try to fight them animals you’ll just end up in the mud all the faster.”

“I ain’t gonna fight ‘em,” said Kraygus as he walked calmly away. “I’m gonna join ‘em.”

 

Tykksen had been afraid Kraygus would tear off on some foolish quest for revenge. Instead he sold whatever hadn’t burned, took the little coin it brought and disappeared. The peasants of the farming village were too busy trying to piece their lives back together to take much notice. Meanwhile the reavers moved slowly— terrorism is tedious work. Two weeks after Kraygus disappeared a man bearing a slight resemblance casually walked up to the perimeter of their roving camp. He was gaunt and threadbare, bearing more wrinkles and ghosts in his eyes. His head was shaved and beard grown out, lending him a brutish aspect.

Cuywun flicked a bloody booger into the wind to see how far it’d travel but lost track of it when this most unlikely sight came striding out of the woods just as calm as you please.

“Oi, Gooch! Look. You seeing this?”

Gooch hoisted the axe he’d been leaning on and squinted. “You gotta be kiddin’ me. Hey! You! You got a death wish you picked a hard way of doin’ it! Cuy, shoot that lunatic.”

“Ayup.” Cuy leveled a rusty crossbow, but half a heartbeat before he let the bolt fly a flash glinted from Kraygus’ outstretched hand.

“Might wanna hold off on that, friend.” The two reavers stood gaping at the sight.

“Is…is that gold?” Cuy’s mouth hung open. “Ain’t been no scrap o’ that around here nigh on a year! Where’d you get it?”

Gooch rolled his eyes. “Who gives a whore’s tit where? Get it and fuckin’ shoot ‘im!”

Kraygus tossed the golden goblet to the ground between them. He held his hands out but kept inching forward. “You could do that, yeah. But you’d be missing out— lot more where that trinket came from.”

Gooch frowned. “What’s that mean? Who are you anyway? Where’s more? Speak up, shitling!”

“A temple,” said Kraygus, “of the Polytheon. Not far from here. It’s full of rich stuff.”

“Bullshit, we done picked the temples clean long ago. You’re a lyin’ son of a—”

“Wait! You’re partly right. It’s actually a priory, hid in the forest. Only the locals know about it. I managed to nick that cup but the brothers fought me off. Figure with some of you lads behind me we could go back, clear the whole place out. I can show you where it is, and a few more like it if you’re interested.”

Gooch looked at Cuy, Cuy looked at Gooch, then Cuy raised his weapon again. “I say that’s a bit convenient, and I say you’re a spy from the Duke, devils rot ‘im.”

“Wha— spy? Why? Y’ain’t exactly a stealthy lot. There’s nothing to spy on. Listen, let me sign on with your crew! I know the area like no one else—”

“We’re full,” said Gooch just a little too quickly, “we ain’t hiring.”

“False,” Kraygus answered, “you hit Lenocca last week and lost two men. You’re down to thirteen. You got openings.”

“How’d you know that?”

“Always study up on the company before the interview. What do you say?”

Cuy looked at Gooch, and Gooch looked at Cuy, then they both looked at the golden prize on the ground. “We’ll have to clear this with Chief,” said Gooch.

Kraygus nodded. “Take me to him, then.”

Gooch laughed and snatched up the goblet. “Better keep studying. You stay just where you are ‘less you want a bolt to the gut. Keep ‘im covered Cuy— I’ll go ask.”

 

Kraygus hurled his foot at the priory door, felt it give way. He kicked again and it splintered. On the third kick it shattered and he rushed in, unarmed but with five men behind him. It was night and the brothers had just said final prayers before heading to bed. The nave erupted into twilit chaos as the men filled it screaming threats. Faced with such a force the robed brothers fell to their knees in terror, crying, “Gods above, save us!”

“Not so brave now are you, you dickless fucks?” Kraygus kneed one in the rump and he went down with a weak moan. “Listen up! I want gold— all of it. Every minute I don’t have gold in my hands one of these fine gentlemen takes a pair of balls. Not that they’re of any use to you. Gold, move!” While half the dozen or so brothers were held at sword point the others scurried all over to obey.

The old prior dared to lift his head from the cold floor just a bit. “You vultures, you’ll burn in all the seventeen hells for this— ahh!

Kraygus backhanded him into an altar. “I’ll see you there then, and I won’t say hi. Now shut up.”

A pile of gilded treasure began to appear as if by magic— goblets, monstrances, candlesticks and icons, all manner of thing. The men of the reaver company licked their lips with greed.

“To think,” said Cuy, his crossbow hard against one fat brother’s belly, “all this were here, right under our noses all this time!”

“Take it all,” ordered Gooch with a smile. “Every bit. Then kill these useless gasbags.” He raised a small handaxe and swung it at the prior’s neck. But instead of the old man’s flesh the steel clanged into a golden candlestick that somehow appeared in its path. “What—?”

“Hold on there,” Kraygus said, brushing the axe away with the dented candlestick. “I’ll loot the place no problem, these bastards take tithe the world over and get fat on it. But I’m a superstitious man— kill ‘em and you risk the wrath of the gods. And I got enough bad luck. They live.”

Gooch let out a hard guffaw. “Are you serious?”

“I’m serious. And if you want any more tip-offs like this you’ll take me serious. They live, understood?”

The two men stared each other down, each wondering how far the other would go to make his point. The others stood watching in case Gooch gave the signal to fill Kraygus with bolts for his impudence. The brothers cowered beneath them.

Gooch laughed again and lowered his axe. “Fuck do I care? We got what we came for.” You could almost hear bowels unclenching as the tension evaporated. “Let’s pack it up boys.” The gold was stuffed into sacks and the six men were off into the night. When they got back to camp Gooch turned and pointed his axe at Kraygus. “Not you,” he said. “You stay out.”

“What, why?”

“You wanna dictate terms? Be the hard dick in front of my men? If word of that gets back to Chief I’m done for. Until you earn my trust you sleep outside the camp.” He pointed at the damp ground. “There’s your place until further notice. Sweet dreams.”

 

“Hey, lookee what I found!”

Kraygus awoke to high-pitched screams. The camp was a ring of tents with a fire in the middle and a few sleepy sentries set to guard it. Kraygus rested under a broad oak tree at the edge of the cleared land with only a cloak covering him. He pushed himself to his feet when the commotion started and crept nearer the camp, hoping no one would protest. “What’s going on?” he asked a sentry.

“Catch o’ the day,” he slurred. “Shit, and me too tired to take my turn…”

One of the reavers had ridden into camp dragging someone behind on a rope. A girl. She tried to keep up with the horse’s pace but tripped every few steps, crying all the way. “Caught ‘er hidin’ in a burned-out shack, but I could smell ‘er cunt! Good luck, eh?”

The men gathered around, each keen to take the first turn with the girl and arguments quickly broke out. “I’m next— remember we drew straws that one time!” “No way, I found her,” and “Well I’m hornier, so shove off!” This continued for a few minutes while the dirty peasant girl sobbed on the ground under the horse.

At last a silence settled over the crowd, but Kraygus couldn’t immediately see why. Then they parted and a slim, lithe figure appeared amid them. A red-haired woman, wearing men’s breeches but nothing else and having obviously been roused from sleep as well, folded her muscled arms over bare tits and glowered at the interruption.

“What’s this? You idiots wake your dear leader fighting over some gash? Were the lot of you raised in a barn?” Laughter.

The woman— the Chief, Kraygus realized with some measure of surprise— knelt down and caressed the girl’s wet cheeks, almost sympathetic. Almost. “Poor dear,” she said, though Kraygus had to strain to hear, “a few years’ difference, a few turns of luck and it might’ve been me on the ground and you leading these rough bastards. The fortunes of war make puppets of us all, don’t they?” The girl sniffed and nodded, perhaps supposing it was what was expected of her.

“Yes,” said Chief, “but don’t suppose that sad fact’ll stay my hand. These are the queen’s men and they must have their pay. You…probably won’t want to survive what’s coming.” She stood, turned a wild green eye toward Kraygus. “You. You’re the suicidal fool led my men to last night’s haul, yes?”

Taken aback, Kraygus nodded. “Uh, yeah. Yes. Chief.”

“Good. Then as reward, you get first fuck.” Chief returned to her tent as a wave of disappointed groans rippled through the company, but no objections. They dispersed and Cuywun led the girl by the rope to where Kraygus stood.

“Cheers mate,” said Cuy, “seems Chief’s taken a liking to ya. Y’aint in the club yet but you’re getting there. Enjoy.” He held the end of the rope out to Kraygus.

“Uh…” He looked at the rope, at the girl. “Well then, hail to the Chief.” He dragged the child— an inexhaustible font of tears, it seemed— toward his tree.

“P-please,” she sobbed, “don’t…”

“Shut up.”

Some of the reavers watched intently, ready to jerk it whilst they watched him rape her. “Keep a distance,” he shouted angrily, “I ain’t used to a damn audience.” He took her behind the oak.

From their vantage point they halfway saw Kraygus rip the girl’s already torn clothing to reveal peasant-tan flesh, snow-white in all the right places. He loosed his breeches and threw her against the tree, then himself. The girl let out a sharp cry. He pressed his face close to hers. Seconds passed. It looked to some of the men like he was actually talking to her, but surely that could not be.

“Aw, kissy kissy, ain’t that sweet,” taunted one of them, “hey, she ain’t all yours ya know! Save some for me!” He pushed her head downward, and a few seconds later Kraygus jumped out from behind the tree clutching at his cock.

“Aargh! Fucking bitch!” The reavers howled at Kraygus’ foolishness— he’d been bit while trying to get his dick sucked! But their laugher ceased when the girl tore off into the woods, her hands still tied.

“Fuckin’ shit,” Cuywun spat, “don’t let the cunt get away!” He raised his crossbow but Kraygus blocked Cuy’s shot, eyes wide and rocking back and forth in apparent agony. “Dammit, get out of the way!”

It was too late— the girl was disappeared into the trees, and too late to go after. The forest teemed with partisans, bandits and the like and Chief threatened death to any who wandered off without orders. Cheated of their prize the men cursed and spat.

“You idiot,” raged Gooch when he found out, “you fucked it for the rest of us! Don’t you realize these men’s only pay is what they can take or fuck? And there ain’t much left to take these days. Shit!”

“I-I’m sorry,” Kraygus stammered, still massaging his jewels, “really! I just wasn’t thinking.”

“Aye, thinking with your cock. This don’t endear you to the men none. Chief might let it slide, but certain I don’t trust you yet. Course if you’re dumb enough to let that happen to you, you probably ain’t no spy.” Gooch stabbed a finger at Kraygus’ chest. “But no more fuck-ups, understand?”

 

That night the reavers attacked another small farm. No one was there, and little of value inside the poor hut. Kraygus helped spread the fire that consumed both hut and field, and when it was done he looked on his handiwork as Chief walked up beside him, frowning. He tensed, perhaps expecting another lecture for losing the girl.

“They ran off,” Chief said. “They knew we were coming and split. Not a good sign.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because as word of our little expedition spreads folk’ll get a mind to take their shinies and hide, and we’re barely breaking even after expenses. Gooch said you knew about more of them hidden temples. You want in my crew? Take us to ‘em.”

Kraygus nodded. “When sun’s next up and I can get my bearings, I’ll show you.”

“I heard about your little accident. Believe it or not it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. Don’t worry, there’s always more. You can sleep inside the camp tonight, if you want.”

Kraygus tossed his burning brand away. It rolled on the ground then went out. “No. Your men still don’t trust me, which means I don’t trust them. Nothing personal, but I’ll stay outside for now.”

Chief inclined her head a bit. “Have it your way.” Kraygus turned in early that night and slept farther from the edge of camp than before.

 

“Where did he go?” Chief stood with hands on her hips, drilling into Gooch with her eyes as she often did. “He was your responsibility.”

“What, since when?” Kraygus had disappeared an hour before he was to lead them to another little-known Polytheon outpost. A chapel, but like to have some silver at least. Now Gooch cast all around for some sign of the erratic man. “Any you cunts catch sight of ‘im? Who’s the last to see ‘im?”

Cuywun trudged out of his little tent with his crossbow and a helmet he’d stolen from somewhere. “Oi Gooch, I seen the bugger early this morning. He was headed east.”

“Toward the place we’re supposed to hit,” Gooch growled. “Maybe he thinks to take it for himself after all.”

“Hmm, maybe,” said Chief, rubbing her chin. “Take your team and check it out. Careful-like.”

“Aye.”

They found Kraygus outside the chapel as smoke billowed from it. He was just sitting, staring from the edge of the clearing. A little barrel sat at his feet. Gooch came up behind, almost afraid to touch him on the shoulder. “Say there—”

Kraygus jumped, spun around. “Oh! There you are.”

“Here I am? What the hells! Rule is no one in the crew goes out alone.”

“I ain’t in your crew. Not yet.”

Gooch sighed. “What happened?”

“Figured I’d get a look at the place first, do some scouting ahead, like. Maybe impress Chief with my initiative or something. I don’t know.”

“Well that was dumb. How’d a look-see turn into…?” He jerked his chin at the flaming chapel.

Kraygus shrugged. “The chaplain’s gone, ran off. It was some family of squatters instead. Thought maybe I could take whatever weren’t nailed down, maybe grab a girl to make up for the other day. They, uh, put up more of a fight than I expected.” Kraygus pointed toward the burned-out doorway to the chapel. Propped against it lay a vaguely human form, engulfed in flames. “I took care of it. Have to wait for the fire to die down to check out the inside, but meantime…” Kraygus lifted a ladle from the barrel and offered it up. “Their cider cellar’s still in good shape.”

Gooch grinned in spite of his irritation. “Well now, there’s some good news at least. Come lads, let’s have us a tipple whilst we watch the world burn.”

The ruined chapel held only a few bits of silverware and some tools, but the reavers’ spirits were lifted by the trove of cider. It flowed freely about the camp, and so did Kraygus at last. Chief took him aside while the others drank and danced, pulling him close. “Two things Kraygus: first, don’t you ever go off like that again. Oh, you’ll impress me but not in any way you’d appreciate. I command here, understand? That’s rule number fucking one.”

Kraygus nodded soberly, not having had more than a sip of cider. “I understand.”

“Second, it might’ve been foolish but foolish I can handle. It’s wolves I need, and you Kraygus, you’re a wolf. I see it in your eyes. Unpack a tent— you’re a company man now.” She held out a hand and Kraygus grasped it, smiling.

“Thank you…Chief.”

 

Cuy was the first to go. He’d caught a cold despite the summer weather and coughed loudly at his night sentry post. Mid-hack it turned to a gurgle as Kraygus’ slim-tipped knife sank into his left jugular then punched out through the trachea. Cuy struggled, but not for nearly as long as Kraygus had imagined he would. He held the man until he went slack, hot blood flowing over his hands in the dark. He lowered Cuy’s body to the ground, almost gently. He glanced left, right. No one had taken notice. One down.

The others were easy. Kraygus snatched the loaded crossbows he’d stashed and shot them through the back of their heads, and they went down without any sound other than the dull scrunch of bone and brain. Three…four…five.

He reloaded the bows and moved silently from tent to tent. Most of them were drunk and easier still. He shot some and fell on others, covering mouths with one hand, stabbing wildly with the other. It can’t be this easy, he thought. It can’t be! How come no one’s killed ‘em already if it’s this easy?

Eleven. He walked out of a tent towards the fire and came face to face with Gooch, up to have a piss maybe. Gooch saw the gore coating him, and for the first time Kraygus saw fear in the reaver’s eyes.

“What…the…fuck? You…Chief. Chief!”

Kraygus tackled Gooch but Gooch was the bigger by two stone. They grappled on the ground for Kraygus’ knife, hands slippery with the blood of a dozen men.

Chief came charging out of her tent, topless again but for a gold Polytheon star picked from the priory haul about her neck. “What’s all this racket? Get up! Both of you get up!”

Kraygus wrenched Gooch to his feet strengthened by adrenaline and pure madness. His knife was at Gooch’s throat, and only then did Chief realize the gravity of the situation. Her eyes darted about the camp looking for sentries. Spotting Cuy’s unmoving corpse in the distance the color drained from her cheeks in the firelight. “Who sent you?”

Sent me?” Kraygus’ jaw twisted with fury. “My wife sent me you murderous bitch!” He jabbed Gooch in the neck. “Don’t you fucking move ‘less you wanna be without a crew entire.”

“Entire…what have you done? You! What have you done!” She produced a throwing dagger from the fold of her breeches— Chief slept armed it seemed— and flung it at Kraygus’ face. Kraygus jerked to the side and the blade buried itself in Gooch’s left eye.

“Mother…fucker.” Gooch fell from Kraygus’ grip into the edge of the fire, twitching. Twelve.

“Who do you think you are,” Chief demanded, now chief of none, “coming after me? You stole, you raped and killed just the same as any of us! Who are you to take some bloody righteous retribution, you hypocrite! You coward!” She pulled— inexplicably— yet another blade from some hidden quarter of her body. “Well you won’t get rid of me so easy!” Frothing with rage Chief crouched to launch herself at Kraygus. But just then a halting ripple shot through her and she exhaled sharply. From the shadows a new form emerged.

It was the girl Kraygus had let escape. Still mostly naked and even dirtier than before she walked up to Chief with a crude hunting bow in hand. Chief looked down in shock to see a bodkin-tipped shaft protruding from her belly. “What…?”

“I’m sorry,” said the girl with acid hatred, “but, the fortunes of war. You understand.” The girl kicked Chief to the ground, then kicked her again in the face. Not dead, oh no. Yet writhing in the kind of pain only a gut shot could inflict. It would take her hours to die, but no one would be around to see it.

The girl looked hard at Kraygus. “Does this mean we’re square?”

“We’re square. How about them other folks livin’ in the chapel?”

“Got away safe. They’re hoppin’ mad about you firing the place—”

“Figures. They’re alive, which is more’n some can say.”

“—and none too happy about having to dig up their old grandpap to use for a fire prop.”

“Hmm. I doubt grandpap would’ve minded,” said Kraygus, “it worked, after all.” He ripped the gold star from Chief’s dying body. “Here, this is the best I can do for reward. The rest goes back to the priory brothers. They played their part well enough.”

“Don’t suppose you gave them much choice in your little plan either,” she said, accepting the gift. “Those other bastards, they’re dead then?”

Kraygus nodded. “All of ‘em. Lucky thirteen.”

“Good. Thanks again for…well, for not actually raping me, I guess.”

“Thanks for making a good show of it. And for coming back to help finish this farce.”

“What if I hadn’t?”

Kraygus looked away. “Best not to ask. I offered you payback and you got it, now get outta here— this place is about to go up in flames. They won’t be bothering anyone, ever again.”

The girl turned to go while Kraygus spread fire to the tents, then paused. “Until the next lot comes. It never ends, does it?”

“Nope, never does. Something ends, something begins. But I’m just one fellow, and I done what I can.” He gazed distantly through the flames. “I hope… she can rest in peace with that much.”