Authors: Hilari Bell
No loose cobbles, in this neighborhood. Almost nothing in the street that wasn’t fastened down. Except two doors up, beside an herb seller’s shop…
I unbuckled my cape and passed it to Fisk, freeing my arms to fight. The terrified joy of righteous battle sang in my blood.
“Pull your hat down over your face,” Fisk said, “so they won’t be able to come after us.”
“I can’t fight that way.”
I cast my hat aside and Fisk promptly donned it, and turned his collar up into the bargain.
“We don’t have t’ hurt your family.” The first thug’s voice was conversational, as if he did this all the time. Another cudgel blow to the chandler’s stomach, and one to the face that straightened him back up.
“First we’re going t’ break all your candles,” the thug went on.
The other thug made the words true as his comrade spoke, snapping one of the expensive candles in several places.
“Then,” said the first thug, “we’re going t’ break your fingers, just like the candles.”
The lengths of wax dangling from their wick did look like a horribly mangled hand. The chandler made a choked sound of terror.
“Then we’re going t’ break your windows,” said the thug. “And next time our collectors come you’d better have the payment. Or we’ll stop fiddling around, pour wax all over this place, and burn it like—”
The clay pot I’d taken from a rack outside the herb seller’s door cracked over his head, scattering dirt and bright shoots. Basil from the scent of it. The thug kept his grip on the chandler’s apron, but it looked to be more for support now, as he sagged to his knees.
The second thug had been watching his colleague work, and failed to notice my approach. Now he dropped the candles, and his cudgel left his belt and whistled toward me…and passed over my head, as I dove to retrieve the first thug’s club, which was rolling across the cobbles.
I brought it up just in time to keep his second swing from cracking my skull, scrambling backward and to my feet, opening distance between us.
My opponent shouted for aid. Fisk, who’d been about to throw my cape over his head, turned toward the shop door as yet another thug appeared.
The newcomer went for Fisk, but I had no chance to see more as my opponent closed on me.
There are tricks to fighting with short clubs, instead of swords. One of them is that there’s no guard protecting the fingers holding the club. This means that much of a cudgel fight is spent in circling your opponent, protecting your hands, and hoping that something will distract him long enough for you to get a blow in.
A cape flying over his head would have been perfect, but a stream of breathless curses told me that Fisk had his own troubles—possibly because he had my hat pulled so far down he could barely see.
I feinted a quick stroke at the thug’s right arm, and when his cudgel blocked it, I reached up and grabbed his club with my other hand—yet another thing you can’t do in a sword fight. It took him only a moment to wrest it free, but while he did my cudgel flashed down, rapping him smartly across the shin.
’Tis a blow that hurts enough to disable an opponent, even when the bone doesn’t break. The man screamed and staggered back, and I looked around for Fisk…just in time to see three more thugs run out of the chandler’s shop.
The man with mud and basil clinging to his hair wobbled back to his feet. The chandler was crouching against the wall, his arms over his head. Fisk’s opponent clawed my cape off his face, and turned toward me as well.
Fisk, as is his habit when we are seriously overmatched, had vanished.
Which left me free to pursue the only possible tactic when the odds are six to one.
I threw my cudgel at the nearest uninjured thug, and ran.
My first burst of speed let me build a good distance between me and my pursuers, for they stayed to bring all their comrades together, and the man who limped slowed them down.
I’d hoped they might do that; such men are accustomed to hunting in packs, and rely on outnumbering their opponents. Though five of them would have been more than enough to do the job, in my opinion.
I could probably have outrun them then, but my job was to keep them from returning to the chandler’s shop, to give Fisk as much time as I could. I actually slowed my pace a bit as I headed for the market square.
My thinking was that dodging through the crowd would slow them down. But when we reached the square I heard them shout behind me, and the crowd I dodged through thinned like magic as folk scuttled out of their way.
My breath was beginning to come hard, and I had to pick up my pace crossing the square. A wheel-barrow of beets, on sale today, sat beside the entrance to a narrow lane. I grabbed a handle in passing and tipped them over the cobbles.
I heard a shouted curse, and looked back to see my pursuers dancing and hopping amid the rolling garnet balls—and despite my breathlessness, I summoned a laughing cheer.
It lured them on, as I’d hoped. I ran for the next street, turned right, and jogged onward. Slower now, less because I needed them to see me than to ease the stitch in my side.
When I heard a gasping shout, “There he is!” I darted left and jogged down an even narrower lane. This was an alley between rooming houses, but the laundry flapping overhead was too high for me to pull it down to slow them, or to hide behind.
Fortunately they were in no better case than I, and I led them left, and left again, into the twisting maze of streets near the oldest part of the port. Fisk and I had applied for work in several low taverns there, and I was confident of my ability to lose them in that warren. Right, left and left again, clutching my aching side. By now I was so winded I could barely jog. But even the man whose shin I’d bruised was still clinging doggedly to my heels—which I took as a bad sign, if they ever caught up with me.
I turned into another narrow alley and put on a staggering burst of speed, gaining as much distance as I could. I planned to go left or right at the next street, before they could see which way I’d turned, and then lose them. The alley I’d chosen even curved, the better to hide me. I was thinking I’d made my escape, till I rounded the curve and found my road blocked by a wall of tall stakes, sharpened at the top like a crude palisade. Mayhap in the distant past this had been some fortresses wall. But now, decrepit warehouses ran right up against it, their tall wooden walls trapping me like a mouse in a box.
A handful of broken crates were tumbled about, and mounds of refuse, including a tall carved chair with its stuffing leaking out—nothing tall enough to help me over a twelve foot fence, even if I wasn’t wheezing like a bellows.
The only plan I could think of seemed a scant chance, but ’twas the only chance. I dragged the chair over to the fence and stood on the seat, looking for a protruding nail or spike. When I found one I pulled off my coat and hooked its hem on the nail, as if it had been caught as I climbed over.
Then I ran for the nearest shelter, a big, overturned bin and threw myself down in the narrow space between it and the warehouse. I tried to soften my breathing as the thugs drew near, but if they hadn’t been gasping themselves they must have heard me.
I couldn’t see them from my hiding place, and I wasn’t crazy enough to try. There was no need. A string of panting curses greeted my ruse, and for a moment hope leapt in my heart. Then:
“I don’t believe it. No one could get over that fence.”
“I don’t know. He was pretty cursed spry.”
“Besides,” another voice chimed in. “If he didn’t climb the wall, how come his coat’s hanging there? And that chair has fresh mud on it.”
Footsteps, as they all moved forward to look. My breathing was under control now, but my heart pounded so hard I was afraid they might hear that.
“No,” said the first voice. “Even with the chair, it’s too high. And how could he slip out of his coat, hanging onto…what? The top of the fence is five feet from that nail.”
Could I dart out of my hiding place and down the alley before they could catch me? I’d have almost no lead, and weary as I was ’twas a daunting thought.
It might be my only choice.
“Then where is he? We saw him run in. Did we pass any doors?”
“I don’t remember. There’s a lot of stuff around here. Maybe he’s hiding.”
I rose to my knees. I’d wait till they scattered to search and—
A hand gripped my ankle.
So taut were my nerves, I almost yelped aloud with the shock of it. I looked back, and saw that one of the planks that made up the warehouse wall had swung inward, leaving a gap near my feet.
The hand, small and grubby, tugged on my boot, clearly inviting me in.
I knew not what awaited me in that warehouse, but it had to be better than facing six men with cudgels—and at this point, a considerable grudge.
Moving quietly, I backed through the opening. I had to twist my body to get through the narrow gap, but a number of hands were tugging on me now. The quarreling thugs never heard the soft scraping sounds of my passage.
My rescuers were children. The warehouse roof was less sound than the walls, emitting shafts of sunlight through a score of holes. It held tall stacks of crates and barrels, and three children who crouched beside me.
A boy, with one eyelid sunken over an empty socket, lowered the plank back down. The oldest, a girl, held a finger to her lips—unnecessary, since I had no intention of giving the game away. She was about fourteen, her dark hair pulled into an untidy braid.
The other boy, whose fair hair looked as if he’d cut it himself, eyed me warily. One hand rested on the hilt of a knife that was too large for him to handle—but he wore it with a more accustomed air than I wore my sword.
All of them, including the girl, had knives on their belts. And though only three had joined me, I heard rustlings in the dim corners that told me there were more of them. A lot more.
Children or not, I’d best go carefully. I sat back, my hands in plain sight, and waited for some time before the one-eyed boy, who’d pressed his ear against the wall, announced, “They’s gone.”
“Good enough.” The girl rose to her feet. “We can let you out the door. It opens onto Sailmaker Lane.”
“I thank you,” I said. “For saving my life.”
They stepped back as I stood, opening distance, and the blond lad wasn’t the only one with his hand on his knife. I resolved to make no sudden moves.
“We didn’t do it for you,” the girl said. “Door’s this way.” She gestured for me to precede them, instead of turning their backs on me. I’ve seen trained guards less skilled at handling a prisoner.
The warehouse was long, with a clear central corridor lined with towering piles of crated merchandise, dusty and stained by leaks from the rotting roof. But ’twas the sounds of stealthy movement behind those stacks, and the odd glimpse of movement in the shadowy gaps between them, that held my attention. How many children lived here? It might be unwise, but I had to ask.
“Who are you? What are you doing here? Where are…?”
A sudden suspicion of the answer stopped my tongue, but they knew what I’d been about to say.
“Yah,” said One-eye. “We’re orfinks, mostly. Those as ain’t, they’s better off here than home.”
I’d heard bits of the Tallowsport accent this week, but never so thick and pure.
“Surely you have kin in this town who’d take you in.”
There was a long silence, then the girl shrugged. “They were chasing him,” she told the others. “And it’s not like he can tell them anything about us they don’t already know. No harm in talking I can see.”
The blond boy growled under his breath, and a murmured echo came from the shadows—a feral sound that lifted the hair on the back of my neck.
“That’s how come we’s here,” One-eye said. “It’s the Rose. He says anyone takes us in, they get the same as our famblies got. We’re supposed to be dead, see?”
He said it with a casual acceptance that chilled my blood, even as it broke my heart.
“Who is this Rose?” I demanded.
All of them stopped, staring as if I’d asked why the night was dark.
“The Rose,” said the girl. “Tony Rose. Atherton Roseman. The man who runs this town. The man who owns the six thugs who were about t’ beat the crap out of you!”
“Ah,” I said. “I’ve spent the last week trying to find out who ‘he’ was. So now, I’m doubly indebted to you.”
“How can you not know about the Rose?” The blond boy’s voice was rough with suspicion.
“I’m a stranger to Tallowsport,” I told him.
“Then why were they after you?”
All the children eyed me suspiciously, now.
“I came to the aid of a shop-keeper they were threatening. I take it Atherton Roseman demands extortion from all the shops?”
“He calls it a city tax,” the girl said. “But people have to pay the regular taxes too, t’ the city and the High Liege. And this ‘tax’ goes straight into Tony Rose’s pockets, according to my…”
She pursed her lips, turning away. But when she turned back there were no tears in those bleak eyes.
That much hate precludes tears.
“I take it your parents, all your parents,” I gestured to the shadows, “stood up to Master Roseman?”
“That’s how you get t’ be an orfink,” One-eye said. “’Least, here in the city.”
“But… Did the town guard never intervene? The High Liege’s guard?”
Never had I heard of a place where the law of the land had vanished so completely. Lords and barons pay the Liege directly, but he sends tax collectors to the towns. They act as his eyes and ears throughout the Realm, and the guards who accompany them are both well-trained and loyal. As you’d expect, in men who guard the crown’s money.
“Nobody stops the Rose, Master Stranger-in-town,” the girl said. “I don’t know where you come from, but if you interfered with his enforcers you’d better get back home before he finds you.”
“They have no way to find me,” I assured her. “My friend and I were just passing by. And from what you say, I’m fairly sure that the reason we came to Tallowsport was to bring Atherton Roseman to justice.”
This man had to be Jack Bannister’s employer. Not only did logic tell me that, but Jack had spoken of him with the same resigned fear that sounded in the children’s voices. They didn’t give my announcement any more credence than Jack would have.