Authors: Charlotte Boyett-Compo
"You’re a dead man!" the innkeeper said and chortled. He started toward the youth, the pitchfork aimed at the young man’s chest.
With a suddenness that chilled the air, something hissed through the morning rays and the advancing innkeeper stilled, a look of astonishment on his pudgy features. He half-turned, rasping in a low breath, and raised his eyes to the ladder. He looked down at the youth sprawled at his feet and then cursed.
"You little bastard," he mumbled as he let go of the pitchfork, his knees giving way as he tumbled sideways, the handle of a black crystal dagger protruding from his chest.
The youth’s blue eyes bulged; the sensuous lips parted as the pitchfork sprang forward with its own momentum, its sharp tines arcing downward. Light shone eerily on the lethal-looking spear; flashed in a bright sparkle of danger as the implement came down with a thud. The tines buried themselves in the hard-packed dirt between the youth’s spread legs, just inches from his groin. The wooden handle bobbed back and forth.
"It missed you!" a voice spoke from the loft.
The young man’s eyes were squeezed tightly shut. He could hear the handle squeaking as the pitchfork wobbled, but he didn’t feel pain. He forced open one eye and swallowed loudly as he scanned the tool from top to handle, to tine, to the juncture of his open thighs. He didn’t recognize his own voice as he let out a softly quivering, "Oh, shit!"
"Is the innkeeper dead?"
He opened his other eye and glanced at the innkeeper. One look told him all he needed to know. Frothy red foam had bubbled out of the innkeeper’s slack mouth and was dripping to the ground beneath his head. The dead man was staring sightlessly at the loft as though in mute disapproval.
"Deader than a door nail," the young man whispered.
"Good! What about the others?" was the question from above.
Sweeping his attention to the man whose head had been dented by the lantern, the young man thought that robber no longer posed a threat, for blood poured from the wound in his greasy pate. Apparently the leader had awakened and fled when the innkeeper met his untimely end, for that one was nowhere in sight. That left only the bowlegged thief whose whereabouts were uncertain.
The youth pushed himself from the ground and cast a quick look around him.
"I don’t know," the young man replied. He felt his shoulder nudged and absently reached over to pat his horse’s nose. "I’m all right, boy," he said softly in answer to the steed’s inquiring nicker. The youth gently pushed his stallion’s inquisitive face from his own.
A muffled oath and a snarl of rage from the loft drew his attention upward and the blond lad leapt for the ladder. Just as he reached the wooden steps, the bowlegged robber came tumbling head over heels to the ground to land with a mighty thud at the young man’s feet.
"Oh, there you are!" The youth laughed, smiling benevolently at his dazed enemy. Totally ignoring the man who was gasping for breath from his fall, the youth was about to climb the ladder to thank his accomplice when something sailed past his ear. He reacted with quick reflex by spinning around to the opposite side of the ladder, nearly breaking his ankle as he pivoted on the bottom rung.
He glanced down and could not credit what he was seeing. He blinked and looked again.
The man with the bloody head wound was clutching a wicked, double-edged dagger that he had obviously been about to plunge into the young man’s exposed back. Now, his wrist was pinned to the dirt floor by the shaft of a gleaming crystal quarrel.
"Did I get him with the crossbow?"
"Aye, you did," the lad whispered. Whistling to himself, he glanced up with admiration and then turned with laughter to the leader of the thieves. "Merciful Alel, but I bet that hurts." The young man smirked. He stepped down from the ladder and nudged the pinned wrist with the toe of his dusty boot.
"Mercy, Milord!" the robber screeched as his free hand grasped the bleeding wrist of his injured one. "Have mercy on me, Sir!"
All amusement left the young man’s face and his eyes took on the hard glint of steel. "Mercy such as you were about to show me?" He shrugged indifferently. "Don’t worry. I won’t slit your dirty throat."
"You ain’t gonna kill me, Milord?" The thief breathed a too-hasty sigh of relief as the youth shook his head.
"Why should I?" came the terse reply. "I’ll let the Tribunal see to you." He folded his arms across his broad chest. "I hear the Labyrinth is nice this time of year."
Fear blazed across the man’s face and he jerked in horror. "Kill me, Sir!" he pleaded, his free hand going up in submission. "I’d rather die than go to Tyber’s Isle!"
Stooping over his captive, the young man grinned. "Do you know who I am?" he asked pleasantly. He hunkered beside the man. "Have you any idea at all?"
The thief vigorously shook his head. "No, Milord," he said, his voice breaking.
"Well, I think I should tell you," the lad said with weariness. He leaned over and put his lips to the thief’s ear.
As the name registered in the bowlegged man’s befuddled brain, he blanched white as freshly fallen snow and moaned in despair. There was no doubt in his mind the lad was telling the truth. He looked away and shuddered. "The gods have mercy," he whispered.
"They might. I won’t," the lad said with a harsh snort. "And now you know why you’ll spend the remainder of your life in the Labyrinth," the youth told his captive and then stood, his eyes going to the opened doorway where there was sudden movement. He frowned. "It took you long enough."
One of the two men who came hurrying through the doorway wore the livery of a military captain. The medallion of his rank was pinned to his wide chest. He was tall, over seven feet in height, with a shock of gleaming, bright red stubble on his oversized skull. His forehead sloped dramatically downward over small black eyes and his mouth was large with rubbery lips that were set in a prim line of worry. His big hands gripped a broadsword that required both hands to wield. "Are you all right?"
With a shrug of disdain, the young man looked down his nose at the Captain of the Guard, not an easy thing to accomplish since he had to crane his neck backwards to do so. "Why wouldn’t I be?" The blond youth snickered.
The captain let out a ragged breath and shook his massive head, glancing over at his companion, a man wearing the livery of a lieutenant. A look passed between them and both turned their attention back to the youth. "Me and Edan were worried about you," the captain said, closing his eyes in thanksgiving and relief that his charge was in one piece.
"There was, of course, no need," the young man said haughtily, sniffing at the tall man’s concern. He pretended to dust an imaginary particle of lint from his torn sleeve. "I am quite capable of defending myself."
The second guard chuckled. "Didn’t I tell you what he’d say?"
A heavy sigh of hopelessness gushed from the Captain of the Guard. He shook his head. "One of these days…" His rubbery face turned crimson with anger. "If you persist in going off on these forays by yourself, you’re gonna come up against the one man you can’t best!"
A disdainful lift of the young man’s shoulders was his answer to the dire prediction.
"Oh, the demons take you!" the captain spat and bent over the bowlegged thief. "What’s to be done with this one?" He gave the dead innkeeper a cursory glance then pointed to the unconscious thief. "Is that one dead, too?"
"Nope. Take them back to Boreas with you."
The captain turned his head and looked at the youth. "Aren’t you coming?"
Another sigh as he and the other guard unpinned the thief’s wrist, ignoring the man’s shriek of pain. "Any time soon?"
Another shrug. "Maybe."
"Will you be riding with us?" the captain asked as he helped to support the thief’s limp weight.
"I’ll catch up with you."
One more sigh at the futility of dealing with this boy and the captain dragged the thief out of the stable, casting a hopeless look at the young man as he went. "You will be careful?"
There was a cluck of the youth’s tongue. "Aren’t I always?"
"Oh, of course, you are!" the captain mocked. He pushed the bowlegged thief ahead of him and shouted at his fellow guard. "Truss up this bastard like a feast goose!"
The youth walked to the opened stable doorway and watched the guards leading the thief to a group of horsemen milling around outside the tavern’s entrance, and grinned. Rayle Loure, the Captain of the Elite Guard, had brought ten men. When would the man learn that he was fully able to take care of himself? He shook his head and then looked up. "You all right up there?" he asked, leaning against the upright nearest the ladder.
"Well, then, I think I’ve made it safe enough for you to come down." The young man laughed, then frowned fiercely as a loud snort came from the loft. His ego stung at the reminder that he had not been the one to save the day. He pushed away from the beam, his mouth set in a mulish line. "You coming down?"
"Aye." Straw rustled in the loft and a few loose shards fell through the gaps in the wooden planks overhead.
"Any time soon?" he mimicked in imitation of his captain’s question.
"In my own good time." The voice that had spoken was youthful, indeed: not more than thirteen, fourteen, at most.
The young man was annoyed that the child in the loft, a stable boy, no doubt, had come to his aid. With the supreme arrogance of youth and masculinity, he thought he could have handled the threat of the pitchfork by himself if he had been given time to rationalize the outcome of his next action. That he had had no sense, and was at the mercy of the innkeeper, had somehow managed to slip his mind. He smirked, rather than smiled, at the thought of a mere stable boy coming to his defense, but then his frown tightened to speculation when he glanced at the dead innkeeper. No ordinary stable boy was this.
He shrugged. A stable boy that could throw a dagger and use a crossbow was worth talking to, he supposed. "You’d make a fine soldier-apprentice," he said begrudgingly.
A light guffaw of laughter came from the loft, followed by the sound of boots crunching straws.
The nicker of a strange horse broke through the youth’s moody self-absorption and he stepped over to a stall at the end of the stable. A small gray horse stuck its velvety nose out to him, a soft snort of welcome coming from its nostrils as he put out his hand. He spoke over his shoulder.
"Does this mare belong to the innkeeper?" He put his hand on the sleek gray nose and patted the beautiful mare. She nuzzled the palm of his hand and laughed. "If she does, I claim her. She’s a beauty."
"Mine," was the offhanded remark as the ladder to the loft squeaked.
"Yours?" The young man’s eyebrows arched in surprise. Not a stable boy, then; a guest at the inn, perhaps. He nodded his head in understanding. The young one was more than likely a boy traveling with his parents or a nobleman’s son on holiday. He nodded emphatically. That made sense. It would explain how the boy knew weapons such as the ones he had used. Sixteen seemed about the right age for a boy out traveling alone in this day and age.
A booted foot crunched dirt beneath it as the sentinel dropped from the last two rungs of the ladder to land on the stable floor.
"She’s a fine one," the youth said, referring to the mare who was pushing her velvety head under his arm in immediate affection. He kissed her smooth muzzle. "What’s her name?"
The young man tightly compressed his lips to keep from laughing at the rather elegant name. He silently mouthed the regal name to himself and shook his head, his eyes twinkling with mirth. Out of respect for the ego of youth, he managed to keep the laughter from his voice as he asked his next question. "An unusual name, don’t you think?"
"Maybe," was the short, miffed reply.
"Is she fast?"
"As fast as the wind, Milord, and twice as loyal. She can outrun any mare you put up against her."
The blond youth’s back stiffened. There had been something in the speech pattern, the tone, and the inflection that didn’t ring right. Turning slowly to face his companion, his brows shot up in shock. "You’re a gods-be-damned girl!"
"It would appear so, Milord." A wicked grin spread across the girl’s face and bright green eyes lit with humor. "I kinda like it that way. How ’bout you?"
"You’re alone?" His eyes went to the loft in hope of seeing the male who had, without a doubt, wielded the weapons with such precision.
"Quite alone." She propped the wicked-looking crossbow she had wielded with such ease against the wall and laid the bag of quarrels beside it. With barely a look at the dead innkeeper, she went to him, pulled her dagger from his chest and wiped the blade on the man’s dirty apron.
With a growl of disbelief, the youth ran his sword hand through his thick gold hair. "By the gods, girl. If I had known…"
Grinning broadly at his look of exasperation, the girl covered the short distance between them and unlatched the gate of her mare’s stall, leading the pretty little horse into the stable proper. "I’d say things turned out all right, even if I am a girl, Milord." She laughed.
He stammered, his mouth opening and closing as the girl hoisted the mare’s saddle from the low partition between his horse’s stall and her mare’s. He was so stunned by her attitude and obvious experience with weapons, he stood gaping as she swung the saddle onto the mare’s delicate back.
The snit was a girl, he thought with alarm. And a little girl at that! She could be no more than thirteen! His mouth snapped shut and he reached out to shove her, none too gently, away from the mare’s cinch as she had bent over to tighten it. "Let me!"
With a suddenness that made him draw in his breath, he felt the tip of something sharp lodged against his flesh just behind and below his right earlobe. He stilled immediately, instinctively realizing the sharpness came from the dagger she now held to his throat. His blue eyes blazed with fury and his lips clamped tightly together over grinding teeth. The bitchlet could be an assassin—another of the robbers’ cohorts—and he had walked right into her trap! His mind went to the dead innkeeper and he had to force himself not to groan.