Wulfrik’s brows shot up at the very mention of a witch, and his wide eyes filled with unease, wondering if he heard correctly.
The king had let his last words hang for a moment, seemingly for effect. I need you both… to hunt me a witch. He makes it sound so personal, thought Wulfrik. Hunt me a witch. Strange.
Wulfrik looked at the ministers’ faces. The man who had hired them looked detached as ever. Indifferent even.
The other minister, a gross old man who’d yet to speak in their presence, seemed like he might fall asleep. In fact, his rumpled skin made it hard to tell if his eyes were at all open. He held his chin perched in his hand, but whenever he nodded could just have been a spasm. He was so fat and large, a shallow breath would make him shake.
The king carried on simply, “What say you?”
Reuben was quick to answer; obviously anxious to quench his bloodlust. “Our services are of course yours to take advantage of, your Highness. However, they come at a steep price. And we would request that we are paid at least half of our fee in advance.”
Before the king could reply, Wulfrik interjected, clearly sceptical. “Your Highness! Perhaps I might have a moment to confer with my colleague before we make any hasty decisions. He is weary and especially rash.”
The king, who had not stopped glaring at the mercenaries, granted Wulfrik’s request with a wave of his hand. Both men bowed, as they backed away from the king and his throne.
Wulfrik turned to Reuben, and began in hushed tones, “What are you doing?”
“Me? What are you doing? That the king disregarded your impertinence is a miracle. He obviously thinks you simple!” Reuben whispered back, though more aggravated. “This is my world—”
“And not mine? I am my father’s son and heir—”
“This is different. We are not in the wilderness, Wulfrik. The land is not divided into a few scattered clans, ruled over by some chieftain!”
Wulfrik knew Reuben was keen to honour his god, but whether or not he meant what he said, Reuben’s words stung. Wulfrik ignored it, deciding instead to explain his actions, “What do you know of witches, hmm?”
And Wulfrik waited for Reuben to answer, but he stayed silent on the matter.
“Yes,” said Wulfrik, “Nothing. Now most of the time, witches don’t stir up much trouble, so killing one usually ends up doing more harm than good. Nor is it some easy task. But when they do cause trouble…”
O, If only he knew the horrors I’d seen, thought Wulfrik. What trouble they cause. Though Wulfrik’s voice trailed off, Reuben saw dread in his brother’s eyes. And he realised a witch was no idle threat.
Reuben sighed, “I’m sorry, Wulfrik. I did not mean what I said about—”
“Yes, I know. You’re restless. And Obitulem is hungry.”
There was a pause, until Reuben asked, “Mm. Well, do you remember… the manticore in the Klu forest?”
Wulfrik groaned, for he understood fairly quickly what point Reuben was trying to make. "Yes. But we weren’t paid for that.”
Reuben continued, “And, do you remember the Siege of Quatis?”
“What about the nest of sand spiders in Valoon? The big ones.”
“Distinctly, but again, we weren’t paid for that.”
“Just hours ago, you said you wanted a challenge. That aristocrats and politicians were too easy for you. Too boring.”
“Witches are not the same thing. And they are not to be taken lightly.”
“And neither are ogres. If I recall you were rather quick into that battle.”
Wulfrik considered Reuben’s argument for a moment. He looked around the grand hall. At the candles on the walls, the tapestries which adorned them, and the archers watching them from the mezzanine above the throne room.
At last, Wulfrik replied, “I’ll live to regret this.”
Reuben smiled, “Then we’ll ask for double our normal rate. Triple!”
The mercenaries turned around finally, and approached the king once more.
“Your Highness,” Wulfrik asked seriously, “Please tell me, in what way does this witch cause you distress? What evils does she commit?”
“If I may, Highness?” interrupted the dæmon minister.
“By all means, Bazurr,” said the king.
Then Wulfrik and Reuben looked to one another. Finally, they had a name. Bazurr. An uncommon one to be sure, but not as sinister as the men previously thought.
Slowly and quietly, Bazurr walked around the fiery cauldron at the centre of the room, and came up close to the sell-swords, as he grinned his yellow grin. “Have you two ever experienced plague?”
Wulfrik nodded. As did Reuben.
“Well… I’m sure you two expect me to tell you tales about some crone’s misdeeds. Isolated incidents whereby her repugnant sight caused ladies to faint, or children to shriek and bleed from their eyes. Or perhaps that she fused a man’s lips closed so he could not eat or speak. Or that she made a man shit out his intestines, and his heart and his lungs. Made it so he wanted to, and scream in delight.”
Neither man flinched at such gruesome depictions, for they had seen worse in battle. But both would have admitted that what Bazurr had described was grisly. Wulfrik rubbed his eyes. Already he knew this was not superstition, or some educated woman throwing her weight around.
Bazurr resumed his speech, “Well, the witch has far greater power. She came to Pytham only months ago. Perhaps because she had killed everything from whence she’d come, or maybe at the behest of some demented hell-god. Whatever the reason, the skies turned black with smoke. Hail and snow fall year-round. All the earth that she has tread on became arid, and all she touched or stared at, ailed, rotted, withered, and often fell dead.”
Suddenly, the old man whom Wulfrik thought was sleeping, chimed in, “Every day our crops die. Children are born still, and men and women lose hope. Animals scurry away or howl in fear—”
“Or come under her control,” Bazurr added. “A man’s faithful dog may turn on him, and go to rip off his master’s face. And of course those too stupid to encounter her, even healthy souls became powerless. Paralysed. And when she first passed through our capital, if a group of men or women so much as looked at the witch, she could turn them mad. So mad as to turn on one another and fight to the death. Or worse still, fill them with lust enough to fornicate in public, before ravenously eating each other.”
“Fuck,” Reuben finally muttered.
“Yes. Fuck.” repeated Bazurr. “Was that what you wanted to know, Wulfrik of Roktar? Does knowing this make you more or less inclined to help us?”
Reuben looked to Wulfrik inquisitively, “Wulf?”
While Wulfrik considered the task, the king grunted, “Such a daunting task undoubtedly deserves incentive. What is your normal rate?”
Reuben made up an absurd price for their services, “For a mission such as this? Five hundred gold Tarani.”
Without hesitation, the king said, “Very well. We will pay you double.”
Reuben’s jaw nearly dropped. So did Wulfrik’s, who looked up instantly. A thousand gold Tarani, Wulfrik mused, to hunt a witch. This is a serious matter.
“And I suppose,” asked Wulfrik, “you’ll be wanting her head?”
“Her whole body, actually,” informed Bazurr. “We’ve heard the stories of a witch growing back her head after it has been sheared off.”
The mercenaries had heard the myth as well. It most likely was untrue, but it was not an unreasonable request.
“The gold is enough to persuade you, is it?” asked Reuben.
“I am a mercenary, Reuben. Gold makes everything worthwhile.” And Wulfrik cleared his throat to address the king, “Er, if it pleases his Highness, we wish to be paid half of the gold in advance, as my colleague had previously requested.”
Scratching his beard, the king shook his head in agreement. “Yes. Your kind usually do.” And he paused for a moment, as if he had not already decided to pay half.
“Yes, your Highness?” replied the wrinkled minister who sat to the left of his exalted leader’s throne. He jiggled quite a bit as he spoke.
“See to it these gentlemen are paid by morning.”
Before the king gave the command, Bazurr was able to infer what his liege was about to say. “And I shall have our guests taken to an inn. To rest their weary heads.”
Then he called to the sentries standing at the entrance. “Guards! Show these gentlemen to an inn. The finest in the capital.”
Those men posted, marched over to Wulfrik and Reuben. Staring intensely. Spears in hand. Swords in sheaths. Sensing any negotiation was over, the Brothers of Purgatory began to walk in the direction the guards were leading them. Which was back through the tall gilt doors.
“Still think this will make for a good laugh?” Reuben queried.
As the heavy doors closed, the bearded glutton rose from the chair, and belched. He looked at his minister Bazurr, and trembled.
“A witch. A plague. Those men… Surely you have condemned them. I thought you would hire a band of mercenaries to deal with her. But two men? They won’t stand a chance.”
“Do you want to keep that throne, you old fool?” asked Bazurr rudely.
The king cringed at Bazurr’s words. “Yes.”
“What was that? Speak up!”
Bazurr said softly, “Then do as I say… and you can. The gods demand a sacrifice, your Highness. Either the sell-swords will die… or she will.”
With a flick of Bazurr's fingers, Poil, a lump of hair and flesh wrapped in a white robe suddenly deflated and fell from the chair he had be set on, revealing that he was not at all real. To see it crumple onto and then jiggle on the floor made the king sick to his stomach.