Brothers in Arms

The boar crackled over the fire, fragrant spices mixing with the roasting meat to made my mouth water. It was the only light in a dozen leagues, as the stars stretched out above us and the plains below. This little hilltop alcove made a perfect vantage point to watch the road for anybody trying to sneak past under the thick soupy darkness. Not many tried to brave the roads at night, except the more greedy and foolish Heroes.

“Say, Hodrick, have you ever seen a Hero?” I asked my companion.

Hodrick was slouched by the fire, sipping on a bottle of beer. “I once saw one in Falinde, gleaming in shining armour, claiming to be blessed by the Gods themselves. Fulmina reckoned he stole her collection of decorative plates.”

Heroes were a law unto themselves, blessed by magic or Gods, elemental forces let loose on the land. After that fateful night, I’d tried to stay well clear of them.

“My parents were killed by one. Summoned a great fireball out of the ether and burned out our farm. They were cut down trying to escape, or so the autopsies showed.”

The silence hung in the air like a black cloud. This was my first assignment with Hodrick. I didn’t know him that well, but I felt I owed him an explanation for how I’d snapped earlier.

I continued, “Ethe’Loriel, they said her name was. The spear of Gilmadrith, she called herself.” I spat a wad of phlegm into the fire. “Us goblins call her something rather less polite: Madam Genocide.”

Hodrick coughed, as he choked on his beer. Humans didn’t have to deal with this shit. They weren’t deemed racial inferiors to be subdued or slaughtered.

“Well, ah, I can see how that’d shape a goblin. Person,” he tried. “But, if you could try and keep your burning rage against injustice inside, rather than getting vengeance on our customers, that’d be really swell.” Hodrick offered a gap-toothed smile that wavered between trying for humour and conciliation.

“I do understand that there are professional courtesies demanded of a certified thug. I’ll try and keep my hackles lower, in future,” I offered.

I stood up and poked the sizzling boar with a stick. It seemed cooked, if a little blacker than ideal. With my dagger, I sliced off portions for myself and Hodrick, which we ate in our bare hands. For a moment, we sat in a silence broken only by the crackling of the campfire and the wet sounds of two companions chewing boar meat.

“Gaston, why do you want to be a thug?” Hodrick asked.

I ruminated between bites of boar. At the moment, I was only a thug’s assistant, tasked with support and paperwork for Hodrick. Given his particular skillset, this looked to involve a lot of math and only a little standing around looking menacing. Hodrick could take care of that part himself.

“It’s about the only job they’ll let someone like me do,” I replied. “Having grown up an orphan, church charity doesn’t run to the set-up costs for a shop, and my parents’ farmhouse is owned by the elves now. It’s thug or bureaucrat, and this seems more interesting.”

Shops were the only way anybody who wasn’t a Hero got rich. When monsters like Ethe’Loriel can bring in seven ancient relics and the stored gold of an empire’s treasury in a day, it tends to have a distorting effect on an economy. Without magical heirlooms or the cash to buy them, no shops catering to regular people could afford to pay rent.

“Aye, the Brotherhood takes on anyone with the inclination,” he said, boar grease draining down his jerkin. “We’re a proudly anti-racist organisation.”

Nobody ever seemed to refer to it by the full name, but the International Brotherhood of Bandits, Thugs and Goons was a lifesaver for outsiders. Thuggery was a good, stable job which put food in your belly and let you meet interesting people in the great outdoors. It was the best a goblin like me could ever hope for.

“I sure wish the city council didn’t take so large a cut, though,” I said, as I mentally counted the takings of the day, parcelling them out between Hodrick, myself, and the taxman.

“Wash your mouth out, boy,” said Hodrick, with reproach rather than malice. “It’s because of the council that we’ve got these arrangements at all. Sure, lately they’ve been upping their cut, but it’s them who parcelled out the thuggery rights to the Brotherhood in the first place. Before Mayor Alkazan and Brother Heinrich agreed on the strict closed thuggery shop a decade ago, just anybody could set up and rob travellers on these roads.”

“You mean thugs just robbed people, didn’t even offer them the standard rates?” I asked.

“Back before the closed shop, unlicensed thugs marauded all around Nargallon, beating and killing people for the clothes on their back.” Hodrick finished his hunk of boar and took to sharpening his axe on a piece of stone he kept for the purpose.

“That sounds dreadful. What kind of person would be a thug like that?”

“People who thought themselves Heroes, with the same taste for slaughter and mayhem. The roads were unsafe for all but the hardiest travellers, and no trade was possible without armed escorts,” he replied.

Imagine that: freelance thugs, running wild across the realm. No law but what you could enforce with your own steel.

“So, that’s where the whole show of intimidation comes from, the theatre of enforcement. But you haven’t actually hurt anybody with that axe, have you, Hodrick?”

“I’ve been in this trade for a while, Gaston. I remember the early days of the closed shop, when I was an assistant, just like you. Not half as good at counting, mind you,” he smirked, then continued, “Part of a union thug’s job is to keep out the freelancers, to make sure the roads are safe. If anyone could just come along and rob travellers at will, then that deal of ours from the council wouldn’t be worth squat. So, yeah, I’ve hurt people with this thing. Killed them, even, when I had to,” he finished, and winked as he ground the edge of his axe sharp.

I hadn’t quite realised that was part of being a thug. Still, what other options were there for a goblin with barely a copper to his name? I searched around for a nice flinty stone on the hilltop and started work on my own very dull daggers, before we turned in for the night.

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