Even though no one was chasing him, he ran. He ran as hard and as fast as anyone that frustrated had ever run. At least, he tried to. And he would have been successful if he hadn’t been attempting to swap out the catch on his sword belt at the same time. The damn scabbard kept flopping at his damn knees, trying to fling him to the damn ground.
He grunted and kept running.
But he couldn’t just throw it away. He needed the new buckle on it. He needed the reminder that Amon was blackmailing him.
He ran down the cobbled street, away from the safety of Stormhall and the center of Rainn City. Away from the guilt. Away from the betrayal of his family.
He cleared the gate and charged into the poor district of Whitehill Ward. Normally, this should make him nervous. But right now, the safest place in The City was the ward where no one answered questions and everyone kept to themselves.
The walls of Stormhall were one mile behind him. Soon, it was two. He slowed. He was tired. He kept glancing behind him as if he expected imaginary pursuit to hop out from behind a shuttered portico or a night-canvased cart. He wasn’t being chased, but now that he was walking, his scalp had that prickling feeling.
He turned away from the main thoroughfare, down a side street. He passed vendors, all closed for the night, their shops sitting beneath creaky wooden signs swaying through the moonbeams. The weight of the darkness choked the trickle of adrenaline still running through his body.
“Well, hello there hidden murderers and monsters.” The whisper was to himself as he paused with hands on his hips. He stood in the middle of the street and tried to find his bearings.
He spotted a deep doorway just beyond a cross street. The arch over the door looked like part of a deserted building. He could disappear for a few moments in the shadows within the alcove. He could catch his breath. He could reassess. The weatherbeaten bricks afforded him the cover to finally address his ridiculous sword belt.
He stepped into the doorway and looked down at the buckle in his hands. It was silver, with delicate imagery of budding trees and four-legged animals. But the primary feature of the sword buckle was the massive, bright emerald in the center.
He glanced around the brick edge and back up the street where he’d come. At this point, he had decided no one was following him, but just in case. He glanced again.
Did that shadow move? It moved. Great. His breathing and heart rate were just coming under control. Now it was time to spike again.
He looked down at the scabbard on his hip. Despite the light callouses, his hands were certainly not to be confused with those of a master swordsman. His trainers were the best money could buy in the duchy. He even tried to make time for training with them.
He poked his head out of the doorway again. Yes, definitely a moving shadow. Actually, two moving shadows. What was he thinking running through Whitehill, flashing around an emerald that could buy the entire block? He wasn’t thinking, that’s what.
He was thinking now. He was thinking his training was about to be tested.
He stood quietly in the little alcove. Maybe the shadows were little old ladies out for an evening stroll through the worst part of The City. Probably not. Probably, they were sent by Amon Mantisarr to chase him down and slip a sword point into his heart.
On the other hand, it was likely the local toughs chasing down some lunatic clattering along on their turf. It’s not as if he was waving around a giant gem. Yes. That was more likely. The end result of him being dead in the middle of a dark street? Well by then, the reasons for his death wouldn’t matter to him.
He needed to learn how to run quieter. That sounded less painful.
He mustered all of his available confidence and stepped out onto the street. If he didn’t look intimidated, maybe the thugs would move out of the street and let him pass. If he looked more physically competent than he felt, maybe they would step into some nearby tavern instead. You know, one of those taverns on this dark, shabby, residential row with no street lamps and only the moon providing any light. Yeah, that might happen.
He flexed his hand around his sword hilt. The only other time he’d been forced to fight outside the practice yard was a couple weeks ago. It hadn’t gone well. He’d successfully held his own in the fury, but it was sloppy. His borderline incompetence had nearly gotten his friend killed.
To his credit, he wasn’t what one would call a soldier.
Well, right now he was dressed like a soldier, but that didn’t really mean he was a soldier. It showed he figured out how to put on a bit of leather and iron-shod boots. Any lady of the night managed that much.
Besides, he had borrowed an itchy stableman’s coat so he didn’t honestly look like a soldier. How did they survive in these things, much less muck out stables all day? He picked off a pointy hay straw and decided he missed his silks.
A can clattered as if stabbed by a boot further up the street.
It was not back the direction he’d come so that meant the shadow ahead of him was more than just a boring piece of darkness. He saw something move.
He eased his blade from the scabbard and quickened his pace. His ears caught the equally quickened response of soft boot steps on the cobblestones behind him.
He started to lean, to break into a run when the dark shape ahead of him stepped onto Blackfalls Lane. The new figure was silhouetted by the lamplight coming from the end of the street. They had him boxed in now. His options melted away.
He was off.
He sprinted straight at the man ahead of him in the street, quickly, quietly, his sword clearing his scabbard with a rasp.
He pulled up short, intending to catch the man as he was bracing for the inevitable impact. Off balance, he would drive his sword into the shadow’s chest.
As the gap closed and he tried to stop, he slipped. He slid on some loose gravel and fell hard on his backside in front of the looming figure of the street thug. As he fell, it was all he could do to get his blade high enough so he wouldn’t carve a long gouge in his own leg.
He caromed into the man. His own sliding feet and legs swept the dark figure’s lower body up into the air and into an awkward front flip. It seemed the man had braced for the impact as planned. The thug came down hard on the deadly end of the upturned sword, the hilt braced by the flagstone street. It thrust up into the man’s midsection and burst out his back.
The would-be assailant gurgled and tumbled over, bound the sword in his ribcage, and levered the hilt out of both hands and flagstone as the body fell.
Boots stormed up from where he’d started his sprint. Now the footfalls were followed by low shouts and curses. The newly fallen thug’s own sword lay loose in a dead, twitching hand. He snatched the hilt.
The other two thugs closed in. He rolled and tried to spring up before the men could close the distance. There were two he could see. It was too late to flee. They were on top of him.
The first thug to arrive, a brutish bull of a man with thick, pounding legs, rushed him. The man leaped over his impaled companion in an attempt to come down on top of his helpless victim. Instinct kicked in. You never left your feet in a fight. He slung out his newly acquired sword and swept upwards at the thug’s legs.
There was a heavy-bodied thud, pain, and a fountain of blood. It was followed by a fierce downward thrust and the charge was ended. The sword slammed through the wounded man’s torso, catching neither bone nor armor, and clanged into the street below. The death blow elicited a heavy flinch from the soon-to-be corpse. Then it was still.
Dirt and grit flew as the final man slid to a stop on the same gravel, just short of the dark, sticky bodies. The thug’s feet flew out from under him, and he bounced his face off the ground as he tried to simultaneously turn around and keep the grip on his sword. The man glanced back as he clambered to his feet. He appeared to revisit his course of action and its odds. With a sneer, the last thug fled.
“I won.” A quiet breath escaped pursed lips.
He stayed on his knees for a long moment. The shock dissipated. He peered at the two bodies in the slickening shadows and scrubbed his face with his hands. That was exhausting. Between tonight and back at the march, he decided this being tough thing was entirely too tiring.
He realized if he wanted to find some evidence to destroy the credibility of Amon and Thred, he would have to figure out how to tackle tasks much more exhausting. Worse, he didn’t know where to start. Hell, he didn’t even know why it started.
He closed his eyes. That wasn’t entirely true.
He stood, wobbled a bit, and jogged a few paces away. The small, unlit street seemed as good a place as any to dispose of the bodies. He left them there and started heading for the street lamps at the cross street.
If he was going to start looking for information exonerating himself, he needed to move about unseen. He was going to have to think of a new identity, a disguise. He was going to have to become one of the common people. If he hadn’t been so tired, bruised, and ashamed, he might have thought it fun.
No. He changed his mind. He wouldn’t. He liked his cushion and velvet too much. But that didn’t preclude the necessity to hide his identity.
What should he take for a name? He’d always liked the name Wens as a kid. It was the name of his favorite dog from childhood. It was nice and non-threatening. Perfect for blending in with The People.
Wens it is. His name was Wens.
However, he would need a darker and scarier name to pry the information he needed from people. His surname should be intimidating. Something dark. Shadowed. Scary. Sharp.
Yes. He was becoming Wens Darktooth. Hunter and slayer of shadow things.
Wens was striding, long-legged and fierce, down to the end of the unlit lane. He no longer feared the dark. He was no longer some untested noble. He was a dark and frightening thing. He was…
Wens stopped with a thought and looked down at the sword openly swinging in his hand. It was plain and ugly iron.
He was holding that first thug’s sword.
His own sword was still bound up in the dead man’s body some fifty paces back the way he’d come. He lifted his free hand, rubbed his eyes, and turned to peek over his shoulder, back at the bodies. He took enough time for a quick eye-roll, unseen in the darkness, and scrambled back to get his sword.
Yeah. He was so very scary.
He slid his sword back in its sheath and looked down at his new sword buckle. The belt was back in fighting shape and now firmly fastened around his hips. He dragged a thumb across the emerald. He remembered the challenge in Amon’s eyes as he had flung it at him.
”Here, take this, and remember richness lost as your consequences,” Amon had said as he threw the jeweled buckle at him.
Wens would certainly remember. He would do that and a lot more. He wouldn’t let the Duchy fail.