Yakov awoke to the smell of burning. Immediately his survival instincts kicked in and he forced himself up from the floor. As he tried to turn his head to scan for danger a spark of pain raced through his body. His neck was in agony, and before long he was doubled up on the floor, howling in pain.
‘Don’t shake, boy,’ came a gruff voice.
A strong hand grabbed him by the arm and held him fast. At first he tried to struggle, but then that made the pain flare even worse than before. Defeated, he fell limp, and to his surprise a second hand caught him, gently laying him down upon the floor.
‘Lay still,’ came the voice once more.
All that Yakov could see now were the wooden rafters, illuminated by the flickering glow of a candle. A moment later the owner of the voice came into view. The first thing that Yakov noticed was his uniform. He was dressed mostly in leather armour, but with a black-steel cuirass protecting his chest. Though the armour was worn and dented in places, the etched image of a crimson bear with two heads surrounded by a circle of thorny vines, was still visible at its centre. It was the heraldry of the city guard.
Yakov’s eyes widened and he tried to kick the man away. Mikhail had told him many stories of the city guard and their twisted ways. He had told him that if the urchins were not careful, then the guards would steal them in the night.What happened to them next, Mikhail would never say, but he had told Yakov that he was lucky to be born a boy. ‘If you’re lucky, they might only kill you,’ he had once said, when Yakov had plucked up the courage to press the question further.
‘Stop fighting, stupid boy,’ growled the guard, ‘I’m trying to help you.’
‘Help me, pig?’ spat Yakov, surprising himself with his own courage. ‘I’ve been to the city gates, I seen the bodies on the spikes. You going to kill me, do it quick. I’m not scared of you.’
‘There you go, Aleksei,’ came a second voice, a younger man that Yakov could not make out, ‘the boy wants to die. Can we go now?’
‘Shut your mouth Greygor or I’ll shut it for you,’ said Aleksei.
The second man snorted but said nothing more.
Aleksei leant down and gently placed a hand on Yakov’s neck. His hands were cold, and there was a slimy texture to them. When he caught Yakov’s worried expression he raised a small jar of green liquid.
‘It’s balm,’ he said, ‘for your neck. Your friend is quite a dangerous man. You’re lucky we got here when we did.’
The boy said nothing, instead staring defiantly up at the guardsman. Aleksei’s face was weathered, and covered in scars, a few of which looked fresh. He was a lot older than most of the guardsmen that Yakov had seen patrolling, with a long black beard that was greying at the edges. His eyes were grey too, and empty somehow, as though the spark of life had long since been purged.
‘There,’ said Aleksei as he finished applying the balm. ‘Is that better?’
Yakov looked up at him in confusion and then slowly turned his head. The pain was not entirely gone, but it felt distant somehow.
‘Good,’ said Aleksei, standing up. He made to offer Yakov a hand, but the boy merely batted it away, choosing to stand up on his own.
The guardsman laughed at the boy’s minor act of rebellion and placed the jar of balm into a satchel at his side.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘tell us about the man who tried to kill you.’