(Tilean Campaign) The End of Spring, IC2403
Part 7. Mangled Facts
“They didn’t slurp it all then?” said Frokkit, peering into the topless barrel whilst clutching his vicious billhook as a support. His spiked helmet threatened to topple in, but he lifted his head back up just before it did.
“No, they didn’t,” said Pooshin. “Didn’t even touch these.” He nodded towards the two on the ground and the one still on the wagon. “Too busy draining them big ‘uns we got from the last place. But they’ll get around to these soon enough, so best not get any ideas.”
Whichever ogre had drunk from the open barrel the previous night hadn’t troubled himself to broach it in the normal manner, instead smashing the head in to leave wooden splinters floating on the unfinished ale inside. Frokkit dipped a finger in, then sucked the sticky beer off, making that particular digit fractionally less grimy than the rest.
“Tasty,” he announced. “You know, I reckon they won’t want this one, not now it’s already opened. An’ if we put it on the cart it’ll just slosh and spill all o’er the place.”
Cornyclipper nodded, an action made all the more noticeable by his heavy nose, and flapping ears.
“You gotta point there, Frokkit. Better to drink it up ourselves than let it go to waste.”
“Puddles in our bellies instead o’ puddles on the road,” said his friend Furnip from beneath the huge ogre’s club he carried upon his bent back.
Silence descended as they all pondered the proposition. They knew not to rush into any act of thievery without proper consideration. Carelessly light-fingered gnoblars did not tend to last long in the company of ogres. It was Frokkit who eventually broke the silence.
“No-one’s lookin’,” he said. “They’re already on the move, leaving us gnobs to catch up as best we can. They’ve taken the big barrels. These little ‘uns are nought but tipply sips to them.”
“Aye,” said Furnip. “Nipper’s tipples.”
“We deserves our share,” said Cornyclipper. “We done Mangler good service, an’ Razger good service an’ all. The bosses had a right feasty reward last night, ’s only fair we have a drop or two too.”
“Aye,” said Furnip, his red eyes fixed in their peculiarly staring manner, but his voice getting louder. “A drop o’ tootoo.”
“I wish they hadn’t gobbled up the oxen, though,” said Cornyclipper. “Luggin this lump of a wagon ain’t gonna be easy.”
“Ah, won’t be as bad if we’ve a little ale inside us,” said Frokkit.
“Reckon so,” agreed Pooshin. “But we’ll drink after we’ve loaded the rest. That way the bosses’ll be even further ahead an’ a lot less likely to ogle us at it. Let’s not rush to load up neither. Best wait a while, just to be extra sure.”
As well as his memorably bulbous chin (which has been punched so often, whether deliberately or not, that he had long since lost all his front teeth) Pooshin had always been known for his cunning. All those present were happy to take his advice, so they all fell silent and stared at the barrel.
Some of them had belonged to Mangler’s band, some to Razger’s army, but now Razger ruled everyone, and although the ogres still marched in their old companies under their old banners, despite the change at the top, the gnoblars had become all mixed up together. The ogres could not care less whether their goblinoid servants formed companies, or even if they took part in the battles. The gnoblars, however, knew they needed strength in numbers if they were going to avoid their masters’ full cruelties. Not that they ever put up any sort of argument or fighting resistance, rather that they could lose themselves in the crowd making it impossible for the ogres to work out which of them was to blame for what. And in crowds they could usually rely on some other gnoblar to distract an angry ogre whenever they did became the focus of attention, hoping their masters’ attention would wane and they would go off to do something else. It usually did.
Frokkit, in an attempt to make the waiting a little more bearable, broke the silence.
“D’you see butcher Slabdul lording it up last night?” he said. “You’d think it was him who beat Krav in the duel, not Razger.”
“Maybe he did?” said Pooshin.
“Whatya mean?” scoffed Cornyclipper. “Razger almost cleaved Krav’s head clean off his shoulders, just a flappy bit of flesh left between. I was right up at the front, an’ I saw it plain as pain. Slabdul just stood and watched like me and the rest.”
“Maybe Slabdul put a curse on Krav?” suggested Pooshin.
“Nah!” said Cornyclipper. “I’ve seen him conjurating, an’ it’s a right old song and dance I tell ya, cutting up his own flesh an’ all. There was none of that last night. He just watched with a big grin on his face.”
“Puh!” snorted Pooshin. “O‘course he was grinning. He wanted Razger to win, an’ he knew that’s exactly what Razger was gonna do.”
Frokkit shook his head. “Not so sure about that. Krav had a chance. A good half of Mangler’s boys thought he could do it.”
“But did he ‘ave a chance, eh? Did he really?” asked Pooshin. “Maybe Slabdul put a curse on him before the fight? Maybe he slipped some foul nastiness into his meat or drink?”
“Magic grediants and wicked wot nots,” suggested Furnip, looking even more wild eyed than usual.
“You reckon?” said Cornyclipper, his brow furrowed.
“Think about it,” demanded Pooshin. “He got given a big chunky share of the army’s loot after the duel. What was that for?”
“To stop him complaining like Krav did?” said Frokkit.
“No, it was a reward.”
“It was a reward,” said Murdle, who had until now held his tongue. “But not for cursing Krav. And not for poisonin’ him neither.”
“What for then?” Pooshin inquired. He knew Murdle of old, and had long since realised that Murdle had a grip on the ways of their masters that most gnoblars failed – often fatally – to attain.
“Think about it,” Murdle explained. “Krav was angry ‘cos when Mangler died Razger made Slabdul his second, not him.”
“Was a bit funny that,” agreed Pooshin.
“Not funny to Krav. He was next in line to Mangler. He should have become second when Mangler died.”
“We know,” said Frokkit in exasperation. “That’s what the fight was about.”
“Aye, the fight,” said Murdle. “But you’ve got things back to front in yer addled ‘ed. The fight was about butcher Slabdul being given command instead of Krav. The reward was already given.”
“No it wasn’t,” argued Pooshin. “Butcher Slabdul got his loot after Krav died.”
“The loot, aye, but he got the command before the fight. That was the reward. The loot was just some crackling fat to make the reward tastier.”
“You’re sayin’ Slabdul was rewarded for summat else?”
“I am saying that, ‘cos I knows it’s true. After the battle on the road, Mangler was mangled bad and badder, but I’ve seen ogres live through a lot worse ‘n that. I’ve seen gnobs get better from worse.”
“It was Butcher Slabdul tended his wounds, see?”
Pooshin scratched at his chin. “He wouldn’t get a reward for being bad at healing. Makes no sense.”
Murdle simply looked at him and waited.
“Hang on …” said Pooshin as an idea squeeze its way into his thoughts. “You’re sayin’ he got a reward for making sure Mangler died.”
Murdle grinned, revealing his two longest teeth – both on the left . “Snitch here saw what happened,” he said as he turned to look at the smallest gnoblar present. “Didn’t ya Snitch? No ogres spot you Snitch, do they? Ye’r too small ain’t ya. But there’s eyes in that little head of yours. Tell ‘em, Snitch. Tell ‘em what you told me.”
Everyone looked at Snitch. Some were surprised to see him, having altogether failed to notice him until that moment.
“Old Mangler lay there sick and sore, big black bruises, skin all tore. But the butcher’s needle was a knife, an’ he stuck it in to end a life.” He had always had a sing-song way of talking.
“Sick, sore, skin all tore,” began Furnip. “Needly knifey …”
“Stop yer gabblin’, Furnip!” ordered Pooshin, then fixed his eyes on Murdle. “You’re saying Slabdul killed Mangler?”
“If Mangler had a hundred cuts after the battle,” pronounced Murdle most sombrely, “he had a hundred and one after Slabdul’s attentions.”
Silence fell as they all thought about what they had learned. Until Pooshin piped up, that is.
“Makes no difference to us though, does it?” he said. “Don’t matter who’s boss, we still has to do what we’re told, and be snikkety quick about it.”
“You’re not wrong. Best drink up then and get a move on loadin’ the rest” said Frokkit.
He swung his billhook over to stick the steel head into the ground, then thrust both hands into the ale to lift out a big, dribbly scoop.