No sleep. Bog stench lingered. She had rubbed aromatic herb, intimate little roots only an Asrai knew, over her cloak, in the lining of her bark armor. For nought. She knew, secretly, the stink did not linger in her cloth, but in her mind. When first she lay to sleep, it nearly turned her stomach, and worse yet, she heard his laughter. The Ribspreader.
Bödvarr died ugly, as all northmen do. Fetid armor scorched from magefire, legs slicked with blood from deep gashes (she never saw the dwarf flail so with an axe, tattoos heaving, eyes bulging over his beard). One-Eye pierced Bödvarr a dozen times with lead shot, and she herself placed the final blow, an arrow through the eye. Uproar, then. Her only friend cackled and crackled, fire snapping off her head. The howl of furious northmen, One-Eye screeching litanies through his nose, the roar of Kruber’s blunderbuss. Despite this, Bödvarr caught her ear. The black titan fell to one knee, dropping his great, stained axe as life withdrew from rotten fingers. His chuckle a rasp, scraping through his bloody helm. Victory soured in her mouth as she heard it, as they fled the rotblood camp. What reason had Bödvarr to laugh? Where could his soul flee, save Nurgle's garden, and there pay dearly for his failure? What bleak certainty let him chuckle as he died?
As she lay safe in the Taal's Horn wondering, flirting with slumber, the Blót tree sprang, unwanted, to her mind. A twisted claw, corpses decorating each finger, swaying in the putrid breeze. Then it was not a dead witch's tree in that weave-forsaken bog, but the Oak of Ages, the great ones of her kin dangling from its boughs. Ariel, Orion, even the prideful Phoenix King; all for nothing they whispered through grey lips, filmy eyes staring. All for waste, all for ruin.
She could lie there no longer. She knelt and sighed, running a hand down her bare face. Which scars were given her by rat men, and which she had given herself, she almost could not recall. Almost. Donning hood and veil, she stepped from her lean-to. Rain fell softly in the training yard, a purple bruise of dawn in the east. Her narrow legs carried her of their own accord, down, through stone and dusty air. Next she knew, she stood before One-Eye's door. She pressed against it, banded wood cool against her belly. Standing tip-toe, she peered through a familiar notch at the top.
One-Eye sat, back to her, naked as a skinned cat. A steaming bucket of water at his side, grubby sponge on the floor. She thought of a dried-up chicken bone, clothed in chewy gristle. Laughter bubbled in her throat, which she stifled. Done with his bath, One-Eye rose and walked among bound scripture and pickled bits of Skaven. From his desk drawer he took a parcel, wrapped in clean linen. Unwrapped, a pointed, polished tooth lay in his palm, long since torn from the mouth of a captured rat man. The Witch Hunter sat once more by his bucket, and slowly, steadily pushed the tooth a half-inch into the meat of his thigh.
"Sigmar bless this unworthy flesh," he hissed, teeth clenched. Blood trickled down his leg, dribbling to the floor. "Let his strength be my strength, his fury my fury." Disgust exploded in her chest. How dare he. How dare he taint absolution, buying it with anguish. That he did so torturing his own kind, an outrage. To do so torturing himself…yet more perverse. More monstrous. She never hated him more. Careless, she snorted with contempt. A tiny sound, but One-Eye's head snapped toward her. Fast as any mayfly could, he rose, snatched a pistol from the rack, and hauled open the door. His lone eye glared upon empty passage.
She fumed. Stomping the parapet, she considered shooting him. An arrow to the eye, just like the Ribspreader. A mayfly who gave only cruelty, received only pain. Was there a more wretched creature? He was bad as the chittering rat men. What horrors could excuse his being? She surprised herself by thinking, again, of Bödvarr. He was an infant, once. He had cried for warmth, his mother's breast. No squealing babe ever pledged his soul to Nurgle. Who dubbed him the Ribspreader. Did he dream of Nurgle, as a boy, huddled in the dark? If so, had he rejoiced…or trembled? Aen'sest cendiron, she thought. Elendir sesset pelerendi.
Dewdrop born at sunrise, crystal starlight. Fall and be the drink of worms.
A tear welled in her eye. She blinked it away, angry. Suddenly she felt stupid, that she had humiliated herself. She put One-Eye from her mind. Who next, she thought. Not the dwarf. He wore broken oaths like a yoke–she could almost hear the pieces clatter as he stumped about. Too annoying. She went to Kruber.
He sat on the perch outside his quarters, legs dangling off a sheer drop down the mountain. Even now, before sunrise, he had a bottle to hand. She crept down the ladder and stood beside him a full minute before he noticed. He jumped from his skin, bottle sloshing.
“Bloody hell,” he cried. “You’re a sneaky one, ain’t ya?” She said nothing. After a moment he turned his gaze to the horizon. “Can see all the way to Helmgart, from ‘ere,” he said and pointed, bottle in hand. “Looks…peaceful. Can’t see the smoke. Can’t see that dirty great gash in the earth. Can’t hear the screams.” He sighed, and took a drag from his bottle. She looked out at Helmgart and imagined a cracked wheel of cheese, beset by nibbling rats. “Don’t plunder much, the Skaven,” said Kruber. “Notice that? Lots o’ crates and chests and stuff, untouched. Reminds me of a story I heard, back in Ostland.” When she didn’t answer, he drank, and began.
“Once upon a time, right, up in Kislev, there was a rich old miser. He had a son who was the right sort, but he himself was bad. When he got sick, ‘stead of leavin’ his coin to his son, as he ought, he ate it. Stuffed himself silly with gold, hellbent on takin’ it all to the grave.” Kruber chuckled, and drank. “Met a few like that. He died after eatin’ all that metal, of course. The good son spent his own money for a proper funeral, Ulrican priest, fine wood coffin and all. But halfway through the service, boom–church doors bang open, and in walks a devil in the guise of a man. Some say it was old Tzeentch himself. Bold as brass, the devil grabs the miser’s corpse, lifts it over his ‘ead, and shakes. Gold coins come pourin’ out the mouth, all across the floor. The priest won't have it. Begone, devil, he says. The devil looks at him, grinnin’ ear to ear, and says ‘don’t fret, father. You keep the gold. I’m just here for the bag.’ With that, the smilin’ bastard flies out in the snow, takin’ the old miser to hell.” Kruber took a long drag on his bottle. “That’s like the Skaven, ‘innit,” he finished.
Behind the veil, she pursed her lips. A mayfly of uncommon intuitions, Kruber. She knelt, took the bottle from him, stood, and took a pull. Tasted of anise, and cedar. She looked at the bottle. Blue glass, bubbles trapped inside. A fine paper label, curling at the edge. It looked expensive, a rare libation in a thirsty world. Lohner must have got it for him, special.
"Always surprised to see you partake." He smiled up at her, guileless. Red nose, eyes watery with drink, trace of spittle in his beard. How desperate he was to be numb. She realized a northlander blade would never find him. One day, of his own accord, he'd lay in a coffin of blue glass, paper label on the side–Kruber, M., bottled 2534 I.C.–and he’d be truly numb, idiotic grin on his face. He repulsed her. At least One-Eye, old Chicken-Bone, tried to feel something. Better if all mayflies were eaten by rats, maybe. Better if the whole world was eaten, and the weave, to boot.
"You alright, Kerillian?" he asked. "Yesterday was a close shave, and no mistake. Big bastard didn't go easy. Couldn't sleep, m’self."
Dewdrop born at sunrise, she thought.
With a sigh, she chose to help him. So, she took another drink, then threw his bottle off the mountain. He sprang to his feet, with an oath.
"Blast it all," he swore. "You elven bint. You just enjoy disruptin' peoples' lives?"
"So much as you enjoy curdling milk with your breath," she sneered. She darted up the ladder as he cursed blue fire at her back.
She slept like a stone.
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