A Butchers Holiday

A Butcher’s Holiday, a Parable

by Douglas Seacat

No one asked to be assigned to Kommander Orsus Zoktavir’s forces. Or at least, so Lieutenant Nikhil Telmienov thought, no sane person would make such a request. Certainly, he never would have dreamed of doing such a thing. These were some of the thoughts occupying his mind not long after being transferred to join the strange and dour men and women who served the Butcher of Khardov.

He had been quite proud to be transferred to the prestigious 5th Border Legion, but that pride had turned to apprehension almost at once upon hearing the identity of his commanding officer. He had found the kompany barracks of those assigned to Zoktavir as ominous and unfriendly as he had feared. They were places where the soldiers seemed averse to proper illumination, employing a few scattered torches in hallways, seemingly chosen specifically for their ability to cast ominous dancing shadows.

The soldiers of these kompanies talked in lower tones than normal, huddled conspiratorially together, and went quiet when a newcomer like Telmienov walked among them. He was subject to countless sly looks and head nods, enough to make him feel isolated and unsettled. As if that were not enough, occasionally doom reavers would walk the halls, fell blades chained to their wrists, causing members of the Winter Guard to scramble hastily out of their way.

For Telmienov, the capper to his predicament came shortly after his arrival. Kapitan Jukeriev, his immediate superior, said to him in a hushed tone, “A word of advice, Lieutenant. Never mention Giving Day to Kommander Zoktavir. If you value your life.”

Given his timing on joining his new kompany at the end of the year, this was unfortunate, as Giving Day and Winterfest generally had always been his favorite holiday. It was hard enough being so far from his wife and his young daughter; now he would have to pretend it was just another day. Like any other.

Heeding the advice of his kapitan, the lieutenant was careful not to show any frivolity or festive leanings as he went about his customary morning duties. He was surprised to see that many soldiers had let their discipline slide, placing adornments around their living areas. In the spirit of trying to invoke a sense of early spring, it was common to string up laurels or affix evergreen twigs, though those of religious inclination preferred to place holy icons, whether Morrowan or Menite, depending on their upbringings.

It occurred to him that these forces must not have as protective of a kapitan as he did, lacking someone willing to warn them against this taboo. Telmienov felt sympathy for them and wondered how great the Butcher’s wrath would be. He felt conflicted, wondering if he should not warn the others, though doing so seemed a lapse in inter-force etiquette. Perhaps the kommander preferred to have someone against whom he could make an example each year.

After first drills, Kapitan Jukeriev came to collect him. Again, the look in his eyes was dark. “Kommander Zoktavir demands all his officers attend him in his hall at once. There’s to be an announcement.”

It was hard not to imagine the worst as they marched quickly to comply, gathering the other lieutenants and joining their counterparts. It seemed the predicted moment had come. Though he had yet to make any true friends among them, still Telmienov dreaded the prospect of seeing his peers subjected to the Butcher’s legendary fury.

They arrived somewhat later than the rest, entering the darkened hall with its roaring hearth. It was hard not to imagine this as one of the ancient longhouses of the Skirov mountain people, where a warlord of old had gathered his shieldsmen before war. Atop a raised section at the fore of the hall was the giant of a man they all served, glowering at them as they entered one by one. Telmienov was jostled as they tried to find a place to stand and listen. It was a crowded room, every figure in attendance an officer, many of them highly decorated and scarred veterans. There were some sergeants in attendance as well, the more senior and grizzled of the non-commissioned officers, the ones the officers relied on the most.

“Attend me, my brothers and sisters,” Orsus Zoktavir said in his deep voice, silencing all other chatter. “Listen well.”

Given his nerves, the dim lighting, and the intensity of Zoktavir’s glare, it took Telmienov several long seconds to realize something unusual was taking place. For one, he realized that the kommander was wearing an unusual guise, having strapped a long white beard to his chin. Placed within his belt was a long strand of mistletoe, with red berries showing. This was so peculiar that for a moment Telmienov was convinced he must be experiencing some sort of mental break from stress.

“Where is Lieutenant Telmienov?” Zoktavir demanded.

The lieutenant did not step forward but was rather shoved by those behind him. He stumbled forward several steps before regaining his balance. He could feel his knees weaken as he got nearer to their kommander. Glancing behind him, he was shocked to see that most of the other officers also wore signs of seasonal festivity, including his own kapitan, who had at some point replaced his Winter Guard cap with a laurel crown. His kapitan smirked as he met the lieutenant’s stare. Telmienov realized his mouth was gaping open—he closed it, then sought to stand at proper attention when he turned back to face the kommander.

The Butcher of Khardov glowered at him, his entire face red, and stepped forward. The fearsomeness of his demeanor was not at all undermined by the strange beard. If anything, it added to the madness that danced in his eyes. “TELMIENOV!” he shouted, then at a slightly lower volume, said, “I am given to understand you do not celebrate Giving Day? Is this true?”

“What? No! Sir, I thought…” He stammered incoherently, feeling his blood turn to ice in his veins.

“You did not think, Lieutenant,” Zoktavir interrupted him. “Do you believe yourself too good to share in holiday cheer with your brothers and sisters-in-arms? Are you too poor and meager to give a gift to your subordinates, to show you appreciate that their lives may be on the line at any time? That any of us could, without warning, be obliterated by an explosive shell, the bullet of a southern dog, or an explosion of lightning amid summoned storms? Is life so cheap you cannot give one day to think of others before yourself?”

As the Butcher spoke, he stepped closer, coming to loom over Telmienov, so near that a throbbing vein pulsed in his forehead. There was almost a palpable aura around them, as though the very air were about to explode in his presence.

It was only through sheer terror that the lieutenant’s knees locked, preventing him from falling over. “Kommander! I swear, I believe in Giving Day! I promise to be generous!”

There was a hushed moment, and Telmienov believed with certainty he was about to be backhanded across the room, a blow that would cave in his skull. Death awaited.

But then the Butcher’s expression changed. He leaned back and laughed, a bellowing noise almost as terrifying as his shouting had been. A giant hand clapped down on the younger officer’s shoulder with such impact that Telmienov immediately dropped to his knees. He felt dizzy. The room was spinning as he looked up to see the grinning maniac holding something in his other hand: a small box, wrapped with a black and red ribbon.

“Welcome to the legion, Lieutenant,” Zoktavir said, squeezing with a hand that nearly broke Telmienov’s clavicle. Zoktavir handed him the box, then leaned down and stared at him with those mad eyes. He added in an intense whisper, “Do not disappoint me, or your men. Not once. Not ever.”

It was at that moment, amid his relief and terror blended into one, Telmienov understood the hell he had entered.

He felt more than ever the importance of Giving Day.

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