Tanners and the BrutebyAcerbicscribbler©
The boy had no real name. He was the tanner's get, below even the whore's runts, responsible for soaking the hides in urine. The tanner called the child "Boy," long after the boy had left childhood behind. The town was large enough that most forgot to which tannery the young man belonged; everyone called him "the tanner's boy" for so long that it became his moniker. Tanners, get out of my shop. Tanners, you stink of piss. Tanners, you good-for-nothing, get a move on.
Tanners wasn't particularly disliked in town. Easily pleased, curious without being clever, unwittingly honest, Tanners had never spent enough time around mannerly people to behave like one. In another town he might have been endearingly simple; only his low birth caused others to shun him. That and his demon eye. Such a bright blue was true sign of result of possession, the townspeople said. A devil was in him, building up that muscle and those looks to snatch some unsuspecting maiden and propagate its spawn.
Tanners' only companion was the young goatherd whose family kept to itself on the hill. She was unconcerned by his devil, but then she already had a child of good seed. It seemed that only virgins need fear.
The brute squad rolled through town one late spring day. Tanners watched them from the hillside with his friend. The procession was all brown—dusty leather clothes and studded clubs, tanned faces and dirty hair. Even their horses were brown.
"Town finally has more to fear than a latent demon," the goatherd chuckled.
Tanners bounced her baby in his arms, ignoring the tiny fingers digging into his lower lip. "The brute squad will clean out the town more than it will clean it up," he commented.
The goatherd knocked him on the head with her crook. "Have a thought of your own, Tanners. An army would bring more trouble than these men will."
Rubbing the injured spot, Tanners grinned. "I've never seen a brute squad before." Would the men all be monstrously huge? Would they give him coins to fetch deliver their messages and fetch their meals? Or would they be like those minstrels and make horrible songs about his devil's eye, melodies that got him beaten for weeks after they had left?
The goatherd snorted as she took her little boy from the young man. "There won't be much to see, I imagine. They're dealing with those nomads; they'll spend their days in the forests and only sleep in town."
Tanners nodded. He had heard talk of houses putting up the men in spare rooms and tents. "How many up here?" he asked his companion, casting an arm towards the small field.
She didn't lift her dark affectionate gaze from the baby. "One. Whoever doesn't mind being away from the town, I imagine."
Tanners barely resisted clapping his hands together. "I'll bring him meals," he promised.
The goatherd raised an eyebrow at him. "Only if he doesn't beat you, Tanners. Stay away from—"
"The left hand that rises whilst the right receives," Tanners finished for her. Chucking the baby under the chin, he put a hand on the goatherd's shoulder. "I'll be careful."
The town was anxious. Though the brute squad was no more than fifty strong it carried the power and authority of the province chief. The townsfolk were expected to provide food and shelter in return for the protection that the touring squad provided. Whether or not the men were kind to their hosts was another matter altogether.
"Concentrate, lazybones!" the tanner yelled, boxing Tanners' ears.
Tanners hadn't been cuffed so many times since he was a boy. He was tired of scraping hides and cleaning. He wanted to go into town to the taverns and see what the brute squad looked like up close. What if he arrived too late and the men were all in their beds, resting up for a day of patrolling? He scraped faster, watching the candle burn down in his peripheral vision.
Finally it was dusk, the candle melted to the fourteenth notch and the hides were put away. His father would take his evening meal with the cobbler's widow as always.
"I'm going to the tavern," Tanners called. The old man's only response was to send a few coins sailing at Tanners' chest, enough to buy a meal and a tankard of ale. The bronze pieces clinked cheerfully in the young man's pocket as he trotted through neighborhoods and alleys to the town centre.
The Fatted Calf was packed full bodies by the time the tanner's boy arrived. Nearly every round table was taken by locals who had come to gawk at the real live brute squad. Every step put Tanners dangerously close to upsetting a cup of beer or tureen of the tavern's thick stew. Through crush of bodies the young man made his slow way to the back to the one available seat remaining.
That the men surrounding him were unfamiliar was no surprise; the town had its fair share of inhabitants. Tanners signaled for ale and stew before he surveyed his immediate surroundings. Brown faces, brown beards, sweat stink, and clubs at their hips. Tanners grinned hugely.
"What's this?" one of his table mates asked in disgust. "You think to join us?"
Tanners nodded vigorously. "There was no other seat, sir." He was seated with the brute squad! They were so large and rough-looking, not like the soft townsmen or the hardy farmers. These men had scars and missing teeth. Their shoulders bulged and their hair was cropped short.
"Quit staring, boy," one of them snapped.
Tanners flushed. "I'm sorry, sir." His stomach knotted. Had he offended them by sitting at their table? Most looked to be nearly finished with their meal. Tanners wished for the goatherd; she could tell him what to do.
One brute with twin mustache plaits belched loudly. "Off to the whorehouse, men," he said as he clapped his companions on the back. He pointed his spoon at Tanners. "Oi, simpleton. Where's the nearest brothel?"
Tanners crossed his arms. "I'm not a simpleton."
"Sure, sure." The plaits man waved a dismissive hand. "Where is it?"
"Across the square and down an alley on the left." Tanners pointed, nearly poking his neighbor's face in the process.
Without saying thanks or bidding him goodbye the men stood and tossed their coin on the table. Gone so soon? Tanners watch their backs disappear through the crowd with a feeling of great disappointment. He hadn't been sure what to expect from the famous brute squad, but he certainly hadn't expected to be ignored.
Had he done something wrong? Tanners was accustomed to being corrected for his mistakes.
"Tanners, move along!" a barmaid shouted over the din. "We've other guests, you oaf!"
"But I haven't eaten!" the young man protested.
Rather than argue the barmaid reached over and grabbed Tanners by the ear. Before he registered anything more than the immediate pain Tanners was on the street and the door was shut in his face. He rubbed his ear, disgruntled and hungry.
"I'll take my coin elsewhere," he muttered to himself, startling a passerby. The other taverns in the square were sure to be full, so Tanners meandered down an alleyway to one of the smaller pubs. Halbeard's tavern was far enough from the brothels and inns to receive only local clientele. There would be neither gawkers nor road-weary warriors here, but at least Tanners would be able to find and keep a seat.
Halbeard's was smoky and poorly lit, but the air was filled with the scent of hearty roast pork and bread. Tanners was surprised to see that the small space was nearly full; perhaps these were more poor citizens who had been turned away from The Fatted Calf. He raised a hand at the taverns' portly namesake.
"Only one seat," Halbeard said as he dumped a serving onto a tin plate. "The corner."
Tanners replied, "Thank you, sir," and accepted the proffered plate. It wasn't until he had made his way through the maze of benches and tables that he realized why the coveted corner table was clear. Tanners slid onto the bench with butterflies in his stomach, nodding wordlessly at the man on the other side of the table. The man flicked his pale gaze upward to scan the new arrival then returned to his meal. In spite of his excitement Tanners forced himself to eat a few bites of his pork and bread. Surely his devil was gone today, for Lady Fortune had blessed him with such an honorable dinner partner. The goatherd would be shocked to hear about this tomorrow.
"Strain your eyes any further and they'll fall from your head," the man said suddenly.
Tanners blushed and looked down to his plate. "My apologies, sir."
"What is it that you want?" The man sat back, shaking dark hair from his eyes. "I won't beat you for a question."
What luck! Stay away, devil, for a little while longer. "Are you part of the brute squad?" Tanners asked excitedly.
The man raised a sweeping eyebrow. "What makes you think I am?"
"No one will speak to you, nobody looks at you even though you're very handsome, you've several scars, and you wield a peasant's club like a knight does a sword," Tanners explained, repeating what he had heard in the town.
"Little pitchers have big ears," the brute said. "I've no club on me."
Tanners scowled. "I'm no little pitcher. I'm a big pitcher with regular-sized ears."
A passing barmaid slapped the back of his dark head. "You'll call him 'sir,' tanner's boy." She curtsied deeply enough to allow the brute a peek at her ample bosom, and moved on.
Tanners grinned at the brute and leaned forward. "She likes the look of you, sir," he whispered conspiratorially. "She'll let you lie with her if you're lonely. No need for coin."
The brute snorted into his ale. "I take it you've had her, then?"
"Oh, not I, sir." Tanners vigorously shook his head as he shoveled food into his mouth. "She said she won't tempt the devil. No one will."
"What's with your eyes, boy?" the brute asked.
"That's what she meant, sir. I have a devil in me," Tanners answered, pointing seriously at his one turquoise eye.
The brute grunted into his tankard; it might have been a laugh. "Devils make eyes blue? One would think it would seek discretion."
Tanners cocked his head. "Everyone says that if I were all good, I'd have two eyes all the same color."
"You believe everything you hear?"
Shrugging, the young man answered, "I haven't met a good person with one brown and one blue eye, sir."
The brute appeared to consider this as he watched the younger man. "Chew your food, boy. You're no dog."
Tanners grinned through a mouthful of meat. "The barmaid at the Fatted Calf threw me out before anyone had attended my order. Perhaps she meant to make room for more squad men, though most had just left for the brothel. I'm just very hungry."
The brute gave no reply.
"You'll find our town well-suited to your needs, sir," Tanners continued, pausing only to chew as he had been instructed. "We've many taverns, one market, and two whorehouses, and there are two bathhouses as well."
The barmaid slapped his head again in passing. "Silence that simple tongue," she snapped. "The good sir came to fill his belly, not listen to your prattle."
Tanners glared at her back as she moved on. "Needn't have hit me twice," he muttered to himself. Were the barmaid but a barman, Tanners would fight him. He wished he could, but striking a woman would bring the devil back; perhaps it had returned already.
The brute watched Tanners glower at the barmaid maneuvering through the room. "Convenient," he said casually.
"Pardon, sir?" Tanners immediately forgot his grudge at the prospect of conversation.
"The bathhouses stand next to the brothels, do they not?"
Tanners nodded, and then understanding dawned clearly on his face. "They can go to bed as clean men, can they not?"
The brute lifted his tankard in acknowledgement.
"Where do you stay tonight, sir?" Tanners asked. Let it be on the hill!
With a shrug the brute answered, "Somewhere in the square. I've need of a bath and a bed without fleas."
The young man's shoulders slumped with disappointment. So he would not have any chance to see this nice brute, only the mean ones who called him simpleton. Then again, Tanners realized, the brute squad would be in the town for more than a fortnight, possibly until the harvest.
"Shall I accompany you to your inn?" Tanners asked.
Pale eyes assessed him so intently that Tanners squirmed in his seat. Most people avoided looking at him for too long; Tanners wasn't sure whether to be pleased or frightened by such direct attention.
"You mean to say that you'll guide me back to the square," the brute said slowly.
"Yes, sir! I have lived my life in this town and so know it well. Should you need anything during your stay I can help," Tanners replied earnestly. "I can fetch things, make deliveries, order meals, anything. I can do it."
One corner of the brute's mouth lifted. "So you're an errands boy and a tanner. Busy man."
The young man nodded seriously. "Call for Tanners anywhere, and I'll provide whatever you need."
"Hah. Well, I shall hold you to your word."
Tanners knocked excitedly on the inn's door.
Tanners pushed the door open with a grin. "Good evening, sir!" He pushed a pack of knives to the side to set the dinner tray on the table, and then perched on its edge.
"Thanks." The brute looked up from lacing his breeches to ruffle the younger man's hair. Tanners' smile grew even larger at the touch. "Do you have no friends, boy, to be always on beck and call?"
"I'm no boy. I've seen eighteen summers at least, maybe even twenty," Tanners informed him, watching the stretch of scar tissue and smooth skin across the man's torso in fascination. There were places on the brute's chest where hair no longer grew, replaced by a line of dented flesh or a keloid pucker. Fresh markings crisscrossed the man's arms, and a bruise showed purple through the stubble on his chin.
The brute snorted. "You'll be a man when you can remember as many. Hand me that shirt on the chair there."
"Keilan." A voice sounded from the doorway, and Tanners was so startled that he dropped the brute's garment on the straw-covered floor. The plaits mustache brute from The Fatted Calf stared at the younger man for a moment, then his eyes widened and he made the sign against evil. Tanners dropped his gaze in shame.
"Don't do that," the brute admonished the newcomer. "It's but an odd eye, no worse than a cat's."
The plaits brute crossed the room to speak to his friend in low tones. "You know that he carries a devil, do you not? The brighter the color, the stronger the evil inside him."
"Wives' tales," the brute scoffed, dropping onto the bed to yank his boots on. "Should it be true, a little honest labor will keep the beast in check."
The plaits brute looked skeptical. "Aye, but even a small demon in a man his size...You invite danger."
"A man his size, you say? He would need to eat a bull at every meal to match your girth," the brute laughed, reaching over to hit the other man in the stomach. "Say your piece, Brando. Surely the devil in the tanner's boy will stay its talons for that."
"You're a horse's ass, Keilan," the plaits man grumbled, but smiled begrudgingly. "I've only come to say that we are to change inns again in a few days. I'll be off."
"Message received," said the brute. "On the morrow."
"On the morrow," the plaits man replied, and left.
Tanners hoped the brute's move would finally be to the goatherd's hill. Then there would be no plaited mustache men to interrupt or speak ill of Tanners. He watched the firelight play shadows across the muscle in the man's shoulders and arms. It was almost disappointing to see them covered by the shirt.
"What is so hypnotizing, boy?" the man asked, snapping his fingers to get Tanners' attention.
Blinking, Tanners raised his eyes to the brute's bemused smile. "Do any of those still hurt?"
"No, when it snows my left shoulder is stiff, but it's nothing to do with all these ugly surface wounds," he responded with nonchalance, shrugging a vest over his shirt.
"I don't think they're ugly, sir," Tanners said honestly. "They make you look like a real warrior. You have a powerful look about you."
The brute lifted a wry brow. "Any fool can get cut, Tanners. Think no more of me because I survived."
Handing the man his belt, Tanners pointed out, "But sir, you have all of your teeth and none are blackened or yellow. Even a scholar often cannot protect his mouth. Does this not mean you have some great skill?"
The brute flashed the dentition in question. "Keep your own face in its current state, and you'll find young ladies willing to forget their parents' warnings."
Though Tanners' cheeks grew rosy at the praise he didn't believe it. "Melody's the only woman who talks to me, but she has a man."
"Is Melody your little goatherd?" the brute asked.
Tanners chuckled. "You call her my goatherd. She calls you my brute."
The man paused. "Is that so?"
Tanners nodded absentmindedly as he fiddled with the weapons on the table. "She's glad that I have another friend, but she told me that she worries what will happen when the brute squad moves on."
"Yes, sir. You had best eat before your dinner turns cold." Tanners seated himself across from his friend and watched him for a moment. There was a sensation in Tanners' stomach that made him oddly nervous around the man. It wasn't a new emotion, but it was so much more powerful today than ever before. Maybe his devil was indeed growing stronger.
The brute glanced at the fidgety young man. "Have you eaten?"
"Have you ever met another devil, inside a man or woman?" Tanners asked suddenly.
"Only you, if the townsfolk are to be believed," the man replied after a moment of thought. "All others have shown themselves to be hedge witches too long at their craft. Why do you ask?"
Tanners frowned. "Lately I feel it more often, and I'm not sure if I grow weak or it grows more powerful."
The brute shrugged. "Does it not depend on what the devil wants? You feel no temptation to eat babes and litters of kittens, for example."
"The temptation is not to violence," the young man assured him. "I only mention the beast because...you...often...perhaps it does not like that I am around a warrior such as yourself." Tanners looked at his hands, which gave the brute ample opportunity to surmise that the boy's ears were pink.
When the brute said nothing Tanners lifted his head. Have I offended him? he worried. "I do not mean to say that you are the cause, sir," Tanners clarified hurriedly. "Perhaps I am not attentive to its bonds when I am in your presence."
The brute narrowed his pale eyes. "How do you know it is the demon?"
"Well," Tanners said as he struggled to put the emotion into words, "I feel restless when performing ordinary tasks. Sometimes my garments become too tight. Or I feel flushed, but have no fever. My heart pounds madly without any fright or exertion."
"Signs of a devil attempting escape?"
Tanners nodded. He held back on divulging the other signs—loss of appetite, inability to keep his mind on naught but the man across the table, and those shameful nocturnal emissions.
The brute seemed unconcerned with Tanners' possession, for his reply was, "Are you sure that you do not suffer a fever?" and to reach across to feel the younger man's throat.
At the touch of the brute's callused fingertips Tanners demon spread its red wings. His chest constricted and his breeches constrained him to the point of torture. It must not harm the brute! Tanners thought frantically, and stood with such haste that his chair fell backwards.
"The demon—my apologies, sir!" Tanners ran from the room and its puzzled occupant without a backwards look.
There was safety in his pile of hay and blanket in the loft. Tanners dashed home and threw himself down with a loud huff. Why could he not take his mind off the brute's hands, his eyes the color of new leaves, the span of his chest and the powerful arms? Barely cognizant of his actions, Tanners fumbled to untie his breeches and free his straining manhood. He grasped it in desperation; anything to release this internal tempest. He imagined the feel of the rough hands on his neck, his body, his thighs and between. How the bare chest would feel pressed against Tanners' own.