The open field felt familiar to the figure as he began to roll the ball beneath his feet, staring out at the trimmed grass. The faces in the stands were blank, unfeeling masks that seemed to follow the boy about the field as he slipped past imaginary defenders and wheeled about with grace, the blade in his hand feeling as natural as could be. Perhaps he had come to the right place, perhaps it wasn't all a mistake after all. But as ominous smoke began to billow up from the floor, cloying foulness began sting the figure's throat. He clawed at his skin, frantically trying to clear the rancid air from his lungs before-
"Layne. Layne! Wake up." The messy haired butcher's eyes bolted open as he was shaken, the cold stare of Gutter looming over him. He pulled his hands away from his neck, frowning as he saw the familiar red of his own blood on his nails.
"Ah. Shakin' like a leaf again." Layne's voice felt raw, clear to him that he'd yelled at some point in his sleep as he sat up, reaching for the skin of water by his bed with an apologetic glance to his roommate.
"Don't say it Boy. Told you before, I'm doing this because Ox requested it, nothing more." Layne had found out how much Gutter didn't like being thanked for completing orders a few weeks prior, but exactly why this was he'd yet to press. She didn't seem like the type to open up in the slightest to Layne, yet Ox seemed to have paired the two up for some reason unbeknown to him.
"How long was I-"
"Asleep for? A couple hours. Longer than last night at least." Layne gave a shaky nod, then began to wash the blood from his hands and neck. He could feel the raw scratches in his skin, matched by half a dozen other patches that had begun to fade with time.
"Don't think I've ever met a lass who sleeps as light as you do." Gutter's expression was hard to read in the dark, but her nostrils flared for a moment as if Layne had said something stupid.
"Nothing." Gutter's words rang about the empty room, only half lit by the embers in the hearth. The Butcher's compound in Lang was an older building, renovated from the ruins of an old watch tower and it showed. The military nature of it all suited the Butchers team at least and paired rooms were significantly more private than the communal sleeping halls they were used to.
"Ox just has a shit sense of humour."
Layne's eyebrow raised as he dried his hands on his legs, giving Gutter a sideways glance as she leant back against the wall, her eyes on him like a hawk. The small stone room would have been cosy to some, but to Layne it came across as cramped as he sat on the edge of his bunk.
"How'd you mean?"
"You aren't the only one that's come to this team broken." Gutter's tone seemed like one of experience to Layne and he had a feeling she wasn't meaning to insult. In all his time across the training ring with Gutter he'd rarely heard her speak beyond confirming orders or sharp criticism of his form, following Ox's instructions without complaint and when they weren't in the ring, she hung around Ox like a shadow.
Weakness was rarely tolerated by the others, even Ox, but in the dark Layne was permitted his moments. Truth be told no-one could control their nightmares after all. Rumours were hard to come by in the team but occasionally Ox gave Layne the feeling that there was more of a reason the two had been paired together for training than he originally assumed. The silence hung between them, cold and awkward until Layne pushed up to his feet, pulling on a shirt and coat as Gutter watched with a raised eyebrow.
"Get some clothes on would ya? I need someone to play against and you're as good as any." There was a confidence in Layne's tone that undercut his usual sing-song attitude, an edge of harshness that'd grown within the boy since he'd been taken under Ox's wing. Perhaps it was tiredness that made him reckless with his attitude but Gutter's snort of amusement made her harsh expression break, shaking her head as she pushed herself up to her feet.
"You're lucky I like you Boy. I'd have gutted other men for taking that kind of tone with me, even back when I played for the Union."
Taking a deep breath of the cold night air, Layne shoved his hands into the pockets of his long coat. The city beyond the walls was quiet, but never still. The ambient light of the street lamps was just barely enough to see by when combined with the braziers that lined the compound wall. A few curious onlookers had given the pair a glance as they'd retrieved training weapons and a ball, but no-one stopped them as they walked out onto the training pitch. Layne stamped his boots into the dirt, snorting softly as his studs struck bricks below the thin layer of turf.
"I always forget how shit Butcher pitches seem to be." His sing song tone was back as he tapped the ball forwards, glancing back at Gutter. "Were Union pitches ever this bad?" He wasn't sure if asking about Gutter's past in such a roundabout way would raise her ire, but now was as good a time as any.
"Rare of you to ask."
"Rarer for you to answer."
Gutter's lips thinned to a line for a moment. Layne wasn't wrong after all, the former mercenary eying about at the patchy, poorly maintained grounds before she shrugged.
"Not usually. Mist'd complain if they were. Then again you might be the first Butcher in a few years to actually care about what state the grass is in."
For a moment, Layne considered asking further about Gutter's past, something that had so far eluded him. He knew about what happened second hand, having heard of the bloody end to Blackheart and the rise of Rage and there were other topics he was curious about. What had Brisket done that had caused her to be wrenched from Butcher history? Instead the older woman swept past, trying to steal the ball out from under Layne's watch only for the teenager to tap the ball neatly out of Gutter's reach. Wheeling about he drew his blade, Gutter stepping between Layne and the goalpost as she drew her own. The two had devised the game as a way of evening up the playing field between the two of them and Gutter had relished the new challenge. Whoever had the ball could get a point by scoring or drawing blood, the defender got a point if they could take the ball or draw blood.
"That's enough questions for now though."
Layne ducked backwards as Gutter lunged, darkness making it tricky to judge the distance between the two. Neither were using the weapons they preferred or practised with in the cages, instead settling for the heavy iron training blades. Layne swung his weapon, the clash and whine of metal on metal no longer making the teen wince at each strike. Concentration was written across Layne's face, but Gutter bore no such expression. The weapon was not her preferred style, too heavy and lacking in reach in her opinion but such a handicap was no issue for the practised fighter.
"Or I'll start asking about that girl you were sweet on."
Watching from the window as light began to crest the horizon, Ox leant to one side on the frame while he listened to the clash of metal, a satisfied smile on his lips as his apprentices began to talk and play, finding solidarity with one another. The struggles that haunted those two would not bedevil them today at least, he mused.
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The views and opinions expressed in Tales from the Pitch are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Longshanks.