When the siege ended Padraig was one of the first through the ruined gates. Burning muscles suddenly fresh as the excitement rose within him.
He could hear, smell and see everything. From the stale sweat on his shield brother Duncan's brow, to the grinding of that madman Girn's teeth. Not to mention the fear in the few remaining defenders eyes.
This was a part of battle that he couldn't help but enjoy. The heightened senses, blood-lust roaring through his head, the certainty of victory.
His sword had cut and hacked at the pitiful defence, no finesse, no skill just savagery. The reward for eight months in this stinking shithole of a land.
He felt free.
After, came the shakes and the shivering. He sat on the remains of a small fountain in a square near the centre of the city and watched a pile of left hands burn. The smell was disgusting and the sight grotesque but he new in every direction there was much, much worse.
A hand clapped on his shoulder and Padraig stifled an unmanly yelp.
“It never gets better, does it brother?” Duncan said, seating himself beside Padraig, wineskin in hand.
Padraig wanted to reach out and drain the skin in one but he was sure his bastard hands would betray him, spilling the cheap wine all over himself.
Duncan jumped slightly as something 'popped' in the fire; a splash of wine landed on Padraig's foot.
He couldn't help but smile at that.
“What's so fuckin' funny then?” said Duncan, a smile on his face.
Another pop and it was as if a switch had been thrown causing a portcullis to fall.
“Why do we do it Duncan? This is what, our fourth siege together? Why are we always there at the fall? Rushing in like animals. What if Sadie could see me now, eh?” He felt a moment of revulsion as he looked at the blood of the men, women and children that covered his armour.
Duncan shook his head, “Truthfully? Some part of us likes it. It's human nature.”
“Bullshit!” he felt bile rise in his throat. The idea that he could enjoy such evil sickened him. He was only here for Janie and the bairn that would have been born already.
“Think about it, Paddy,” Duncan said, standing. “I'm off to find a place to kip, I'll save you a spot.” He placed his hand gently on his friends shoulder. “Drink the wine; forget all this. We'll be heading home soon.”
Padraig didn't look up he just took the skin in his no longer shaking hands and took a long swallow.
“Dark thoughts,” he whispered to himself.
He remembered the first siege. He had been seventeen, newly married and aching to be the hero. He was one of the last to enter through the massive gates, hours after the battle had been won but he could still hear screams. Men, women and children.
Some had been hauled off in chains, others killed out of hand. The unlucky ones raped or tortured. Piles of burning bodies had flanked the entrance; the smell had distracted him for a moment, allowing him to forget where he was long enough to accept a drink from another soldier.
After that he could remember very little. But for weeks after he would awake in the night drenched in sweat.
The next two were different. The battles themselves had been harder, more drawn out. Weeks of hearing the wounded on his own side scream had hardened him against the defenders. By the time the walls had been taken they were no longer human in his eyes.
At least not until after the battle lust had faded and he could remember the feel of a babies ankles in his hands, a scream cut short with a thud or a terrified woman keeping still as he had his 'turn'.
“Did I enjoy it?” at first all he could feel was disgust but somewhere beneath the surface he knew it. It was the feeling of power, of being in control. “Fuck!” it came out as a stifled cry.
He shook his head, a tear running down his face and lifted the skin to his lips. Empty. 'How long have I been sitting here?' he thought.
The sky was beginning to darken, making the fires seem all the brighter.
The world tilted and swam as Padraig made to stand, almost toppling in the process. He was drunker than he had thought. He closed his eyes trying to calm his mind.
Then he heard it: the echoes of tiny feet slapping against the cobbles, a child's breath labouring in its run. He opened his eyes to see a terrified boy race past.
'Shit,' he thought, 'they'll get him.' He knew most of the men were like him, only capable of such things with the heat of battle still on them, but there were others and they were the ones who searched for survivors.
“Stop boy!” if anything the boy increased his pace, diving into an alleyway. “Fuck!” Padraig gave chase, he couldn't let those sick bastards get him.
'What difference one more?' a part of his mind asked mocking.
He gritted his teeth and ran into the alley; straight into a cudgel.
When his head cleared he saw several children looming over him, little faces grim.
Padraig didn't even try to move. “I'm sorry,” he sobbed.
“Why?” asked one of the bigger girls, tear tracks cutting through the soot on her face. “Why do you do it?”
“I don't know,” this time his voice was firmer, he could make this good he could save these children, take them to safety. “A friend of mine says it's human nature, but I...”
“Human nature my arse! You are just weak,” she said as the cudgel arced down to smash into Padraig's face.
Even as his face was crushed his last thought was that she was right.