Diamonds, wealth, luxury—none of it holds a torch to self-preservation.
Vaux sorted through a storage trunk, pushing aside a framed photo and picking up a coin purse. The silver pieces clinked together in the pouch. His crew looted the rest of the caravan, pulling apart cupboards and drawers, taking whatever they could find.
It’d been ages since one travelled down their roads.
“The law,” a merchant called, “is going to get all of you.” He struggled against the rope binding his hands, his face in the dirt. Two dead guards lay beside him. Sunlight broke through the shedding trees overhead.
“All of you will hang from the gallows,” he continued. “I swear it. Hounds will sniff you out, a cudgel will break your nose, and you’ll be dragged to town square for your crimes.”
Vaux walked over. He threw the coin purse to a crew member, then knelt beside the merchant, boots digging into the ground.
“Wait until the law-”
“Listen,” Vaux said. “Laws are for city folk. You can’t put a man on trial if you can’t find him.” He unsheathed his dagger and pointed it to the trail. “Did you know what lies ahead? Did you think your two guards would keep you safe?”
“I’ll hear none of this, thief. Return my belongings at once-”
“It’s better you ran into us than what dwells further down the path. We’re at least offering a quick death.” Vaux held the merchant up and tapped his dagger against his neck. “Should’ve picked your route more wisely, but I’m not complaining.”
The merchant opened his mouth to beg, and Vaux slit his throat.
Blood spattered the leaves.
- - -
Vaux paced through his camp at dusk.
A dozen bandits picked at what little food remained, sitting around campfires, arguing over cards. Women watched over children—the young ones ripping grass from the earth, searching for worms.
Hungry stares caught his gaze. Deep, sunken eyes. The caravan’s loot could not feed them all, and it wouldn’t be long until winter.
“Captain,” a man said. Vaux stopped and turned to see Rhyer, a long-standing member of the group. “Got a minute?”
They walked to Vaux’s tent and sat across from each other. A map spanned a crate between them. Lamplight lit their faces with an orange glow, and Vaux began dissembling his pistol. It refused to work if not cleaned after every shot.
“This road’s giving us nothing,” Rhyer said. “What’s the plan for packing up and moving? ‘Cause nobody in their right mind is travelling through once they hear the rumours.”
Vaux nodded. He ran a cloth over the pistol’s handle, the wood regaining its shine.
“We got nowhere else to go,” he said. He looked to the map, trails marked off with an X. “All other roads are just as barren as this one, or already have a group like us that won’t be willing to share.”
“Then what’s your plan? The men are growing restless, Vaux. They trust you to make a decision, but there’s not going to be another merchant with the swine folk living under the bridge.”
Vaux took a vial of black powder from his pocket and reloaded.
“The damn swine,” he said. “They breed quickly in the dark, don’t they? You can hear their cries and squeals if you listen for it. They’re building armour and weapons down there—I’ve seen one with a butcher’s cleaver. How long will it be until they take them to a village?”
“You’re missing the point-”
“Ain’t at all.” His pistol clicked in his hands. “If the swine decide to move out, they’re not going to be stopped. Royal army is out on their crusade for riches. Trade around here’s going to die. Us along with it.”
He pointed his dagger to the map—right on the line marking their road.
“We’re keeping this route as ours. Get every man here to sharpen their weapons. If they’re all restless for a fight, we’ll walk straight into one. We’ll bring it to the swine folk. It’ll be like any highway robbery.”
Moonlight lit the roads. Vaux led his group of bandits down the path, the silver light glinting off their sharpened blades, bandannas pulled up to their eyes. Leaves broke under footsteps. Faint squeals sounded in the distance.
Corpses littered the path close to the bridge, hunters and runaways prey to the swine folk. A wheelbarrow, poorly put together, held human remains—the limbs of gutted travellers. A feeding trough for the swine.
Vaux tightened his bandanna against the vile smell.
He stopped outside the entrance. A bundle of sticks tied together acted as a gate to the underpass, fires burning within. He turned to face his crew, who held their weapons at the ready, their thumbs over the levers of their pistols.
“Listen up!” Vaux yelled over the squealing from inside. “None of these pigs are human, do not treat them as such! Show them no mercy! We clear this out, trade will start up again, and then we’ll eat like kings, hear me? Our blades will find the hearts of these monstrosities-”
The gate broke open behind him. A brutish hybrid of man and pig, burly with steel plates covering its chest, charged at him. Spit foamed around its tusks as it swung a serrated blade. The wind rustled the mane running down its spine.
Vaux dodged back—the weapon grazed his coat. He spun his dagger around his hand, then swung a wicked slice that cut into the pig’s neck. It backed up, stumbling. Another bandit shot his pistol. Bone and brain splattered the grounds.
“Don’t leave any of them breathing!”
He charged into the den. Torches made of human remains hung upon the stone walls, fires burning within skulls. Totems of rock with odd symbols scrawled on them stood in the middle. A pig with gold earrings rushed forward, others scrambling to their hooves, knocking over makeshift dining tables and the flesh atop them.
One swine picked up a drum of stretched human skin and began to play.
Vaux turned and fired a point-blank shot. The bullet exploded through a pig’s chest—it squealed as it dropped, a hole where a human heart would be. Gunfire flashed in the night. He lunged forward, deflecting a cleaver, riposting with an uppercut slice to spill a swine’s guts.
The drum beat to a frantic tune. A skewer whistled through the air, impaling one of Vaux’s men. A small pig with a chain-wrapped hook around its hand killed another, slashing open the bandit’s stomach. The drumming picked up pace, furious, and the swine folk fought to the beat.
“It’s the drummer!” Vaux called, yet his voice went drowned out by the battle. A legless pig crawled to him, balancing on two gaunt arms, taut skin pulsing with veins. It raised its head and puked.
The projectile vomit hit Vaux’s coat and melted a hole in the leather. He kicked at the pig, then stepped around a body of his own. Another skewer whistled his way. He sidestepped into the wall, the wrong direction, then raised his knife as if to deflect it-
A pistol fired and shot it out of the air.
Rhyer nodded to him—the man’s skin burned with swine vomit.
Their numbers thinned, twelve bandits dropping to six. The large swine, carrying hammers and cleavers, did not fall with ease. His men duelled with the savage beasts, who grew more vicious as the drumming quickened.
Vaux dashed forward. The drummer hid on the opposite side of the underpass, beating two bones against its barbaric instrument. Vaux stabbed his dagger in a swine’s eye, then aimed his pistol, steadying his shot, focusing on the space above the drummer's snout—right between its eyes.
He pulled the trigger. The gun smoked but didn’t shoot.
Vaux cursed, threw the pistol aside, and picked up a cleaver off a dead swine—the handle not fit for human hands. He flung it at the drummer, who raised its arms to block it.
The swine folk froze as the drumming stopped. One bandit sliced open the veins running down a pig’s arm, forcing it to drop its hammer. Another took the second to dodge back and reload their pistol, then ruptured a skull with a well-aimed shot.
Vaux stabbed at the skewer-throwing pig, who seemed confused without the beat of the music. He grabbed a lance from its quiver, then stabbed the drummer before it could get back into rhythm, pushing the rod through its chest, silencing it.
His men fought until no swine was left standing.
By daylight, they dragged corpses of the swine folk to a bonfire. Vaux sent one bandit to town, spreading rumours of the path being clear, then stepped aside to watch the pyre. His men took down the fortifications and freed up the path behind him.
Rhyer approached, stifling a rattling cough.
“Have to get you to a plague doctor,” Vaux said. “All of us. Those pigs are walking disease.”
“Don’t you think we should get a reward?” Rhyer asked. He’d tied clothing around his patches of burnt skin. “The town down the road should thank us. We’ve earned their coin.”
The fire crackled. Swine folk charred black within.
“We’re outlaws,” Vaux said. “Nobody will want anything to do with us. What we did was an act of self-preservation—we don’t get the luxury of credit or thanks. We got rid of experiments that never should have happened. Now we mourn our dead and move on. Winter is on the horizon.”
Rhyer nodded, covering his mouth to cough.
Vaux walked back to camp.
It wouldn’t be long until the next caravan.