Authors: Charlotte Boyett-Compo
The three thieves looked at one another. They had not anticipated any trouble when they’d followed their mark to the stable. As a matter of fact, they had anticipated no trouble at all from this callow youth. They had thought him an easy mark as he sat drinking in the Hound and Stag Tavern, for he had appeared to be deep in his cups, his full attention on the jug of mead that sat before him on the rough-hewn plank table.
"You’ve time to turn around and leave before it’s too late, you know," their intended victim warned politely.
"You ain’t got nothing to be so confident about, boy!" the oldest of the three scoffed, coming closer.
"You might be surprised," was the roguish reply.
The oldest of the three men—a miscreant who appeared to be in his late sixties although his massive build could rival that of a man half his age—seemed to be their leader.
He was a burly man with coarse, flat features, and a beaked nose that dripped a constant stream of yellowish snot from its crooked, battered tip. The nose looked as though it had been broken many times, for it sat at a slight left angle along the man’s unshaven and dirty cheekbone. Scratching at the stained crotch of his equally dirty breeches, the man narrowed his drooping lids over dull, lifeless, rheumy gray eyes. "Hand over your gold, boy," he sneered, "and we’ll let you live to get back safe-like to your mama."
From the corner of his eye, the youth saw the other two robbers easing away from their leader. He feigned a shiver of fear. "My gold, sir? But if I give you my gold, however will I get home to Mama?" His gaze was merry, innocent; but then the regard changed—quicksilver-fast—and the innocent look became a hot glare. The full lips lifted with contempt. The amused voice turned cold and deadly as the smile faded. "If you men think you can take my gold from me, then by all means go ahead and try," he drawled. "I have no intention of giving you bastards anything of mine."
The leader’s expression turned hard. Encouraged by the grunts of laughter from his two companions, he smiled a gap-toothed sneer. "Well, now, boy. If that’s the way of it, then you have seen the last of your mama and she of you."
"Don’t make us have to hurt you none, boy," one of the other men advised. "Or have to mess up that pretty face of yours."
The young man stiffened. He was very aware, and very sensitive, about his looks. He’d often considered his softly rounded face and pale blue eyes far too girlish. Despite the deep cleft in his chin—the only truly mature thing about a face that still sported a peach-fuzz growth of light beard—he thought of his face as a liability rather than an asset. The mop of thick, golden hair that fell to the right over his high forehead annoyed him even more, for he thought blond-haired men were too often considered effeminate and ineffectual.
He was just a tad over six feet and he’d often complained to his brothers that his lack of height made him feel more boyish yet. His shoulders were broad beneath the soft sheen of his leather jacket and his chest was developing nicely; but he had not been able to add bulk to his muscles yet. His long legs were tapered and well-proportioned in the tight fit of his dark brown leather breeches, but he wasn’t all that good a runner. His hands were strong, though, and that—combined with the lethal expertise that governed his sword—gave him an advantage these men could not see.
"A scar or two on that lily-white puss might give the boy some character, huh, Tymmy?" one thief said and giggled. "Make more of a man of him, you reckon?"
The man’s taunt brought another blush of anger to the lad’s face. "You gods-be-damned bastards have bitten off more than you can chew this time."
"When we get through with you," the leader chuckled, "not even a diseased whore will look your way, son!"
The lad crossed his hands over the jade pommel of his sword and leaned on the weapon. Lifting one golden brow, he let a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. "Now is that so?" A wicked gleam entered his sky-blue eyes. "And I suppose the three of you are thinking yourselves worthy opponents for me and my blade?"
Snarling, the leader put his beefy hands on his hips and glared. "You’re a bigger idjit than I thought you were, boy, if you don’t think we can spit you and roast you ’fore we’re done!"
"An idjit?" the lad repeated, clucking his tongue in mock dismay. "I’ve been called many things, gentlemen, but never an idjit!"
"You be one, that’s a truth!" one man dared to chime in, puffing out his scrawny chest. "We’re gonna roast you for a certainty!"
"Let’s see you try," the young man scoffed. "The only idjit here is the man who thinks I’ll let him take anything that belongs to me. What is mine, is mine. And mine it will stay."
"Brave words for a man alone and outnumbered," one of the robbers reminded him.
"That’s because you men pose no threat to me."
The leader took a step toward the youth and raised a gnarled fist, a meaty chunk of scarred and rough flesh. "You just signed your death warrant, you crazy little bastard!"
A short, balding man with only a fringe of orange hair ringing his shiny pate, the third thief’s legs were badly bowed. He looked as though he sat astride a keg of ale. His lurching walk would have been comical if it had not been so pathetic to watch. As he’d waddled closer to his victim, the stench of him came rolling across the stables in waves of noxious fumes. His torn and greasy garments looked alive with vermin. "He’s about to meet his maker, he is."
"Then let’s do it," the blond lad said, shucking off his leather jacket. He threw away the jacket, spat into his left palm, then brought up his sword. Grasping the blade in his left hand, he bent and flexed the tempered Chrystallusian steel, his gaze never leaving the burly leader’s face.
With a furious grunt, the leader drew a short sword from the belt of his pants and lunged at the young man, staggering by his victim as the youth had stepped easily away. The thief yelped as the flat of the sword struck his rump.
"You sorry little…" he gasped, rubbing his backside with his free hand. "You’ll pay for that!"
The remaining thugs turned their own weapons on the youth, striking out with little or no expertise.
True amusement flitted across the youth’s merry, grinning face at the robbers’ clumsy efforts to impale him. He met their frenzied, ill-timed attack with offhanded skill; pushing one man away with his foot while sending the other crashing woefully to the ground with a well-aimed backhand.
With a snarl, the leader struck out with his sword while the youth was doubled over with laughter. He managed to slice a thin slit in the billowing cambric sleeve of the young man’s shirt.
Looking down at the tear, the youth ceased to laugh and a heavy scowl came over his handsome features. Sighing heavily as he plucked at the rent, he slowly lifted his gaze to his attacker’s face. "Well, hell," he said with exasperation, letting the words drop like heavy stones. "This was a brand new shirt." With a low hiss of spite, he lunged forward and engaged his attackers in a shrill clash of blades.
In the shadowed confines of the stable’s loft, a watcher peered over the edge and took in the drama. As the one-sided fight lingered on, the watcher followed the exchange of swordplay; keeping a close surveillance on the young man as his opponents clumsily circled him. But then something just outside the watcher’s vision nudged that sixth sense most people have when danger is lurking near, and the onlooker’s attention turned from the fight to scan the partially opened side door leading to the tavern’s kitchens. A search was made for what had caused the sensation of wariness. Seeing nothing immediately in need of attention, the watcher pulled closer to the edge of the loft and finally spied the stealthy approach of a fifth man entering through the sun-darkened doorway.
The innkeeper, no doubt anticipating a quick end to the objective he and his cohorts practiced on a regular basis, had ventured from his establishment as time lapsed onward. Taking in the situation in a glance, he reasoned his own brand of intervention was needed. Easing himself over to a pitchfork leaning against the wall, he crept up to the wicked-looking implement and grasped the handle in his flour-caked paws.
Grossly fat and squat, short legs waddling beneath his long, dirty apron, the innkeeper nevertheless moved with a grace and speed that belied his bulk. His pudgy face was creased in a scowl and shone with sweat as he sneaked up behind the youth.
The sentinel studied the situation with concern and growing anger. A man who would stab another in the back was a coward and as vile as they came.
"I don’t think so," the watcher growled quietly through clenched teeth. Silently and swiftly, the watcher drew a thin black blade and expertly flipped it over in a practiced hand so that the sharp blade rested lightly along the palm. A callused thumb eased down the blade until the very tip was held firmly by the heel of a flexed thumb and crooked forefinger.
Intent on disarming—and disrobing—the man who had torn his shirt, the youth saw no real danger in a man advancing on him with only a doubled fist as a weapon. He glanced quickly at the man and then turned his attention back to the robber with whom he was sparring. He had felled the leader just moments before and that mischief-maker now lay huddled against a stall, his greasy red hair plastered with horse droppings from where he had skidded on the floor. A well-timed kick knocked the orange-tufted, bowlegged man’s weapon from his hand and a look of shock passed over the robber’s grimy face as he scurried after his blade.
With his back still to the lurking innkeeper, the youth now had only one obvious opponent: the man who was within boxing distance of him, fist doubled. Confident that he could take the robber, that no actual threat was forthcoming from those arthritic-looking hands, the young man laughed.
He was still laughing as dirt was thrown into his face, effectively blinding him. He twisted away from hands that grabbed at his shirt and felt the material rip. Less concerned now with his clothing, he stumbled back, shook his head to clear the watery vision that blinded him to the men around him.
"Oh, no you don’t!" The thief who had thrown the dirt laughed. "You ain’t getting away from us, boy!" He made another attempt to grab the young man’s shirt, then grunted as a lantern crashed down from the ceiling. He wobbled to the floor, unconscious, his eyes rolling back in his head.
Mouthing an obscenity, the innkeeper craned his head up to the loft. The dirty little bugger had an accomplice up there. With an intense scowl of hatred on his beefy face, he kicked out at the red-haired leader who was slowly, groggily coming awake. "Get that bastard in the loft, fool!" he shouted to the bowlegged man.
Hearing a voice so close behind him, the young man spun around, his blurring, stinging vision only able to make out the bulk of someone coming toward him. He shook his head once more to clear it and then his eyes flared as the tines of the pitchfork gleamed in a ray of sunlight peeking through the loft’s planking. Losing his balance, he fell backward, sprawling to the ground at the mercy of the rapidly advancing pitchfork. Landing painfully on his tailbone—the stall in which his own steed was sequestered blocking his movement backwards and an upright keeping him from twisting to the left—he found himself wedged against the stall and a wheelbarrow filled with grain. His face paled with an unaccustomed look of fear and he swallowed hard. With a silent prayer on his taut lips, he took a deep breath and waited for the piercing agony he knew the tines would bring.