Halling doing what he does best. Getting drunk and fighty. For context, Pelt and Halling are on the run from their former employer, joined by one of their fans and a noblewoman. I may post the second half of this scene next week.
Once the meat was dressed they roasted a joist over a fire in the middle of the barn’s floor, and spent the night wreathed in gloom, eating their fill, listening to the wind whistle through the gaps in the stone and dreading to hear other, more ominous noises beyond it. Pelt most often stood in the doorway, hunched against the wind, staring out into the darkness, keeping watch.
Leaf would offer Dance a timid, apologetic smile every so often, like he was sorry he brought her to two violent brutes and she blamed him for it.
‘They’re good men,’ he affirmed, as if she hadn’t got the message the other dozen times he’d said it. Perhaps he was trying to convince himself. ‘They’re…soldiers, that’s all. This is their life.’
‘No.’ Dance shook her head. ‘They’re not soldiers. I know soldiers. These two are…’ She looked over her shoulder, fearful the short dark one would be standing over her, staring down with his hateful eyes and mocking smile. ‘They’re not soldiers,’ she finished lamely, looking morosely back into the flames.
‘Aye, that’s true I suppose. But I’d trust my life with them all the same. Pelt, he’s honourable. He saved my life.’
‘And the other one, Hall, what’s he done? I heard he kills women…camp followers.’
Leaf looked shifty at that. Even his optimism in the goodness of a mercenary’s soul was blunted by Pelt’s brother. ‘He’s…he’ll…he does what Pelt tells him. He’s nothing to worry about.’
‘You didn’t hear him, Leaf. He said they’re going to Lord Vitchek. I don’t know, but I think they’re planning to turn coat, to work for him.’
Leaf shook his head. ‘No, they wouldn’t do that.’ His face said he wasn’t so sure.
‘They fight for money, Leaf. That’s their profession, even if you could call it such. Where did they come from before they appeared in my husband’s…in Nollingul’s camp?’
‘Hall told his brother that he’d rather work for Del Maedr, and Pelt didn’t even flinch, like it was a possibility he was considering himself.’ Dance was hissing now, her voice constricted, eyes fever-bright. ‘I won’t go over the border, in either direction. I’m known to our enemies, they’ll capture me.’
‘Then we’ll just tell Pelt; I’m sure—’
He made to get up until Dance tugged him down again. Over by the door, Pelt glanced at them over his shoulder before turning back. ‘You can’t,’ she yelped. ‘We’re inconveniencing them already. You heard them, they don’t want me along. You, they need, I heard them talking about it. They’ll use you to scout for them, but me…Hall’s right, I’m just useless baggage.’
Taking her hand in his, Leaf said, ‘Don’t say that! You’ve been through what no lady should ever have to. That Lord of yours, he’s evil.’
‘You’re kind, Leaf. You know, all the time I was with him, I thought about how I could escape, how I could change my life, be something else. And now that I have escaped him, I see that without him I’m nothing. As miserable as it was, I was better off as his wife. What am I now, Leaf?’
When he couldn’t answer, she gave a great sniff and pulled her hand from his. ‘My thoughts exactly.’
‘My Lady, you are…you’re beautiful, and…and delicate and you deserve wine and protection and a man who’ll love you and…oh I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound a fool. Listen to me.’
‘It’s sweet, Leaf, and I thank you, truly, for your concern. Perhaps coming here, finding these two, was a mistake.’
‘What do you mean?’
Seeing the look in Leaf’s eye, Dance shook her head. ‘Nothing, nothing at all.’
A strong smell of mud and rain and liquor and sweat swamped them, followed by a slurred voice. ‘Tricky little bitch, ain’t she?’
Both Leaf and Dance howled in fright and scuttled back as Halling, soaking wet and dripping, reached down to tear a strip from the hepyra flank still bubbling over the flames. Where he had come from they had no idea. He had a bottle in his hand, covered head to toe in mud and splashes of something red, something ghastly.
‘She’s meaning she wants you to take her away from the likes o’ us evil cunts before we rape her and cut her throat.’ With a flourish and a drunken bow, he added, ‘The good lady tires of the company of uncultured brutes such as we two, and I don’t blame her.’
‘Hall!’ came Pelt’s angry bark from the doorway.
‘Yes, O great and wise king Pelt the Smarmy? What would you have me do now? Lick the cow shit from your boots, perhaps? Darn your socks, sweep the larder, wash your smalls? Anything you ask, and I’ll obey. After all, I do what my brother tells me to do, right lad?’
Leaf cowered away from those pitiless eyes.
‘Where did you get that bottle?’ Pelt demanded, storming toward the fire.
Halling drew his sword, which Dance noticed with horror was caked with glutinous blood and hanks of dark hair. Bile rose in her throat and she shied away into the shadows.
‘The bitch plots against us, brother!’ Halling cried, swinging his arms wide, carelessly. ‘Come morning we’ll be two again, and it won’t have had anything to do with me, despite what you think! She spurns all we’ve done for her by convincing the boy to flee! And he’ll do it, too, mark my words.’
‘Hall, put your gods-damned sword up!’
‘Fuck off. I do what I want, when I want. I wanted a drink, so I went and got me one. Now I want a woman.’ And he turned his horrible leer onto Dance, who went cold.
Pelt put himself in front of her, arms wide, one hand holding his axe. Threat and violence hung heavy in the moist air, and there was nothing Leaf or Dance could do to stop it. They were as helpless as lambs in a winter storm.
‘Oh, you want to fight me for her?’ Halling said with laughter in his voice. ‘Or are you protecting the damsel’s honour? What a hero you will make, just like those dusty old dead fuckers you pray to in your books. You wanna be just like them, don’t you? Want all the small folk to look up and go gooey-eyed over the great and good and selfless Pelt, champion of the downtrodden!’ Halling kicked the spit over, sending up a shower of sparks. ‘You ride into slaughter thinking you’re doing it for a higher purpose. Who’s the bigger liar of the two of us, eh?’
‘Hall, you’re drunk. I’m warning you now…’
‘At least I don’t go ’round pretending to be what I ain’t. I know I’m a killer, and I freely admit it. I embrace it, and my conscience is clear.’ He took a last swig from the bottle and hurled it at his feet, sending shards of glass zinging through the darkness. ‘You dress up what you really are in lies and false nobility! There ain’t nothing noble in what we do. Ask her, she’ll tell you. We’re murderers, killers, and we do it for no man, no king, and no god. We don’t even do it for coin, neither. We do it because we’re fucking good at it! And I don’t know about you, Pelt, but I do it because I enjoy it.’
There was a black look in Pelt’s eyes that neither Leaf nor Dance had ever seen before. It looked almost worse than his brother’s, and only then did they both realise what they had gotten themselves into.
‘Have you finished?’ Pelt growled, his voice heavy with fury.
‘I dunno, have I? Why don’t you try telling me what to do again, and we’ll see.’ He then flicked his chin, ‘Girl, come over here. If you’re riding with us, better start paying your way.’
The barn was suddenly filled with the sounds of two beasts going at each other’s throats. Steel clashed so loud that Dance fell to her knees, senseless with terror, hands over her ears.