If but he could say the words aloud, and to her face. But alas, he could not. For starters, he would be but a stranger to her, and words such as those—uttered as they would be with exasperation and reproach—were none a stranger, let alone a boy, should say. Furthermore, she was quite a few yards ahead of him and with the pair of rogues closing rapidly on her. As such, there were more pressing matters to attend beyond chiding her for the silly cat and mouse game she had attempted to play. That could come later, if at all.
First, he had to deal with Vasek’s hirelings.
That they were two to his one was enough to give him pause. There was also the matter of weaponry to consider. He was in no doubt that Vasek’s men would be armed, most likely with daggers of the discreet stabbing variety, more for show than actual use. Intimidation would be their game, and nothing was more intimidating than the sight of a naked blade. In most instances, that was all they required, which suited men of Vasek’s ilk just fine. At heart, men such as these were cowards, relying on fear to bring about cooperation. Though should they be pressed, they wouldn’t shirk from drawing a little blood.
Richard was without a weapon, having left his own dagger, which would be concealed in his boot, at home, not suspecting that he’d be released from the interviews so early and be saddled with time to wander the markets. So, as expediently as he could, he let his eyes scan around the detritus left in heaps at the mouth of the alley. Without fuss, for he had no time for such, he pulled free a sizeable length of four-by-two from a smashed crate, complete with a jagged quartet of nails at the far end. This he tested with a few hearty swipes, finding it somewhat clumsy, but knowing that it would serve its purpose anyways. As an afterthought, he stooped down again and disentangled a mouldy hessian sack, a very basic strategy formulating in his mind.
While not wholly satisfied with his choices, he nonetheless carried on, pausing only to peer around the corner and down the throat of the alley itself where the girl was backing away from the two brutes. They advanced slowly, unaware that they themselves had been tailed and in error, thinking that they had time to spare to make something of a spectacle of proceedings. To this end, the man on the left had his arms folded across his chest; as such, he presented no immediate danger to the girl. His companion, though, was a different matter altogether. In his hand was a short dagger, which he flashed before him like a child’s play thing, turning the blade so that its keen edge caught the meagre sunlight angling in over the craggy and claustrophobic shoulders of the buildings that formed this tight alleyway. Whether he intended to use the dagger or not was immaterial. Just having it ready at hand was threat enough.
And so, knowing the disposition of his foes, and rudely armed, Richard Seth drew a deep breath, counted slowly to five, and rounded the corner.
He moved swiftly, knowing that time was precious and the window for surprise was apt to slam shut sooner rather than later. To this end, stealth was out of the question. Besides, the heels of his boots scraped and clattered loudly over the cobbles in his haste, so any attempt to be sneaky was doomed to failure from the onset. It didn’t matter though. The bandits were so engrossed with baiting their prey that Richard was almost upon them before they realised what was happening.
With a shout, he lunged forward, his first target the bandit with the knife. Of the two bandits, he reacted first, spinning swiftly, if rather awkwardly, in an attempt to bring his weapon to bear upon the intruder robbing him of his prize. His curse was abruptly cut off when Richard threw the hessian sack into his face, entangling his knife arm—and the knife itself—within the tatters of sodden, putrefied material.
Richard had no time to ascertain the success of this ploy; the second bandit, wasting no time for curses, dipped a hand inside the folds of his robe, feeling for his own weapon concealed therein. In a matter of seconds, Richard pounced, swinging the four-by-two at the bandit.
The impact was loud, terrible. Richard heard the crack of cartilage, saw a bloom of crimson burst from the bandit’s shattered nose. And even before the bandit brought his hands up to cover his face, Richard saw the deep and jagged rents along the man’s cheek where the quartet of nails at the end of the makeshift club had scored through the flesh straight to the bone.
For the briefest moment, he was repulsed, sickened not by the sight of blood, or the way the wounds on the man’s face pulsated and flapped like fish gills, but by his actions. There was nothing even remotely resembling chivalry in this act. This was thuggery, pure and simple.
Yet, Richard did not stop.
Could not stop.
Something clicked inside him, pushing aside the dry as dust lectures about integrity and fighting the fair fight. This was no textbook engagement; there would be no test at the end, no grading, and no second chances. It was brutal, that was certain, but hadn’t Richard seen bloody noses from fights before: those he had inflicted, seen inflicted upon others, or even received himself?
There were no formalities here, no build up, or the obligatory exchanges of antagonistic (and, for the most part, moronic) jibes, and certainly no spark to set off the actual fighting. Instead, it was cold, calculating, and utterly spontaneous. Something new to Richard, and even if it jarred with some of his beliefs, he nonetheless felt a flutter of excitement.
This all shot through his mind in an instant, so quickly in fact that it didn’t have time to coalesce into a coherent thought. It was primal, raw, above cognition. Above reason. Thus, he reacted.
He swept forward again, three quick steps. The four-by-two once more drew an arc through the air, ending with a sickening crack across the back of the bandit’s skull. Almost immediately, the half-rotted timber snapped, the piece with the protruding nails bouncing away from the force of Richard’s swing. The bandit shuddered, blood spraying from his face as his hands fell away. Then he flopped forward, his head striking the cobbles beneath with a dull, meaty thud. His legs twitched once, twice, and then he was still.
Richard, now with only half of the club in his hand, turned to face the second assailant, who had only just divested himself of the hessian sack. He stared levelly at Richard, schooling his features so as not to give anything away. In turn, Richard returned the stare, hoping his relative naïvety in such a venture wasn’t written on his face for his enemy to see.
The man facing him looked battle hardened, complete with a jagged scar that burst from the widow’s peak atop his closely cropped head and ran straight down to the bridge of his nose. He held the knife now with more purpose, knowing the true mettle of his opponent. There would be no more tricks, no more showing off. The tables had been turned, and turned quickly, with much embarrassment to the men in question. Would Scarface be seeking to make an honourable withdrawal, or would he now be seeking blood?
That he chose the latter came as no surprise to Richard. What did, though, was the manner in which he chose to achieve it.
He lurched forward, his knife poised for a thrust into Richard’s stomach, meaning to end the mêlée in one decisive action. The attack was rushed, uncoordinated. Richard was able to easily side step the clumsy advance, even when his adversary slashed out at the last second with his blade, and brought his own weapon down onto Scarface’s outstretched hand. The hand holding the knife flicked open and the weapon tumbled to the ground. Without a pause, Richard booted it away.
With no weapon, and a recumbent partner, Scarface did what any thief caught in the act would do. He deftly dodged Richard’s return advance—not before receiving a short, but harmless clip around the ear for his trouble—and dashed like a startled rabbit for the mouth of the alleyway, all thoughts of treasure and sport secondary to the safety of his own skin.
Richard waited until Scarface had turned the corner before lowering his weapon, counting off five long seconds lest that worthy should have a change of mind and return for another round. Only then did he turn his attention to Scarface’s colleague, still lying face down in a spreading pool of crimson. Satisfied that this man wasn’t likely to cause trouble, he finally looked towards the girl.
“Are you all right?” he asked.