When the interrogation started, Yakov kept his mouth firmly closed. He was grateful for the guard’s apparent kindness, but still he did not trust him. Guards were the enemy, and besides Yakov was no snitch. He knew what the gangers did to people who talked. It didn’t matter to them what you said, or why. You just didn’t do it, and if you did, there was a heavy price to pay.
After an hour of near-silence, Aleksei, clearly the senior of the two guardsmen, instructed the younger man, Greygor, to bind Yakov’s hands and march him back to the district barracks. Greygor had taken great pleasure in this task, deliberately tightening the rope around Yakov’s wrists such that any movement caused them to rub painfully. He had then taken to prodding him between his shoulder blades whenever he walked too slowly.
‘That’s enough, Greygor,’ said Aleksei, as their prisoner stumbled and fell face first into a brown puddle.
‘He’s just an urchin, Aleksei,’ spat Greygor, though he begrudgingly helped the boy up after a stern look from his superior.
‘He is a citizen of Karinska. Do not forget that.’
‘He is a peasant and a criminal.’ Greygor’s hand was gripped tightly around the pommel of his blade. ‘We should leave him here for the crows.’
‘That’s not your call,’ said Aleksei. His hand had also moved to the hilt of his sword, and he stared at the younger guardsman menacingly.
For a second their eyes were locked before Greygor lessened his grip and looked down at the spot where Yakov had been. His annoyance was soon replaced by shock.
‘He’s gone!’ said Greygor.
Sure enough the boy had picked himself up, and taking advantage of the guards moment of distraction, made a break for it. His arms were still bound behind his back, but he had managed to make a considerable distance between himself and the guards all the same. Behind him he could hear Greygor swearing, followed by the sound of heavy footfalls as armoured feet raced after him. If he could but make it into one of the many winding alleys he might be able to shake them. It was not much of a plan, but he was scarcely spoilt for choice.
It had been raining, and the further down into the poor district he ran the more he felt his feet slip. The road was getting steeper as well, and the sounds of the guards grew closer and closer with every passing moment.
The houses of the poor district, if they could even be called as such, were little more than badly constructed wooden shacks, most of which wore a patchwork of planks and tiles to cover areas where their walls had begun to rot. Some had even been conjoined, perhaps in an effort to aggressively expand into a neighbours territory, though Yakov knew very little about such things. All he knew of the poor was that they were a sad and desperate people. Few could work for a living, many would simply die of starvation. They were pathetic, and though he had been born on the streets, he refused to live like them.
As he scanned the line of houses ahead he saw a narrow gap between two. It would be a tight squeeze, but he was sure he could make it, and that the guards in their armour would not. In any case it was the only chance he was likely to get.
They were closing in, and though he dared not look back he could all but feel Greygor’s breath upon his neck. With the end in sight, Yakov sprinted forward, straight for the gap. As he did so he felt the mud slipping beneath his boots and his foot sliding in a direction he had not intended. Cursing to himself, he fell forward, the speed of his fall pushing him onwards.
Behind him Greygor was stumbling too. His footing had failed as well, and it was not long before he fell onto his side and rolled down the steep path towards him. Aleksei was more careful in his movements, but far slower. There was no way for them to catch up with him now.
Yakov grinned, and pulled himself up. It was a difficult task, but with great effort he managed to right himself long enough to push into the gap. It was just wide enough for him, and to his surprise the wet mud caked upon his tunic made movement considerably easier between the two buildings.
There was a loud crash behind him as Greygor slammed against the gap, his armour dented by the impact. In a mad rage he drew his sword and stabbed wildly, but Yakov was too far away for him to reach.
‘You fucking runt,’ he yelled, ‘come back here! I’ll cut your fucking balls off!’
Yakov ignored him and continued onwards. There was another row of houses up ahead. Assuming the guards were not quick to find a way around he should be able to disappear between them and from there he would stand a greater chance of losing them amidst the labyrinthine expanse of the poor district.
Quickly he exited the gap, then turned as a dark shadow fell across him. A blunt object hit the side of his skull. There was the sound of something cracking, followed by intense pain. Black spots entered his vision and he began to sway. He turned to face the new threat and saw before him a giant of a man wearing a cloak as black as the night sky. A hood covered his head from view and gave the impression of a black void where his face should be. Yakov could just about make out the appearance of tarnished plate armour beneath his cloak as he fell over backwards into the mud.
Like the Black God come to claim his damned soul, the figure stood over him, staring down. He did not move further, though he held before him a steel blade. Yakov had never seen anything more terrifying in his entire life. In that moment he forgot about how, mere hours before, Mikhail had been choking the life out of him. Now, more so even than then, he was certain he was going to die.
‘There’s the runt!’ Greygor’s angry cry broke the silence as he rounded a corner and advanced, sword raised.
‘I’m going to enjoy gutting you,’ he said as he brought his sword forward, ready to strike. He seemed to completely ignore the armoured man. That would prove to be a mistake.
As Greygor’s sword arm moved down in a cutting motion, the armoured man struck him, severing it at the wrist and sending both hand and sword flying. The guardsman shrieked in pain and a plume of blood squirted from his severed limb.
A second later the armoured man turned and kicked out with his boot. The steel-capped boot impacted on Greygor’s chest and he was knocked over backwards, coming crashing down in a spray of mud and water. The young guardsman was sprawled out on the floor, still screaming as his attackers sword descended, skewered him to the ground. With seemingly little effort the man twisted his blade, snapping ribs and slicing organs. There was a sickening cracking noise, followed by Greygor’s gurgling death scream, and then silence. Yakov turned aside and vomited.
‘Greygor,’ yelled Aleksei as he rounded the corner, ‘don’t harm the boy, we need…’
The guardsman paused as he saw the bloody remains of his comrade and then looked up at the armoured man standing over him with a mixture of fear and rage. Greygor’s blood was still dripping from his sword.
‘What have you done?’ he cried out, and immediately drew his sword.
Without word the man brought his sword to bear, ready to enact the same fate on Aleksei.
‘Wait, stop!’ yelled Yakov.
The strangeness of the outcry halted the armoured man’s blade and he backed away so that both Aleksei and Yakov were within his view.
‘You do not command me, boy,’ said the man, his voice oddly calm, ‘and as for you, guardsman, I would advise you to put your weapon away. That is unless you want to die as well.’
Aleksei stared at the man for a long moment, and then cautiously returned his blade to its scabbard.
‘You didn’t have to kill him,’ said the guardsman bitterly.
‘Not your call to make,’ said the man. With both hands he forced his blade down firmly into the ground, leaving it standing erect and then lowered his hood. The man’s face was pale like the first snow of winter, with a series of red lines like cracks in a broken tile that traced their way across his pallid skin. His eyebrows were black and bushy, though there was a deep gash in one from some old wound that had never truly healed. His hair too was black as a crow’s feathers and irregular in length, with clumps missing in areas where signs of battle still lingered. Yakov believed him to be the most hideous man he had ever seen.
‘Sir Khelenys,’ gasped Aleksei, ‘I am so sorry, my lord, I didn’t recognise you.’
‘A forgivable mistake,’ said Sir Khelenys. ‘Give my regards to that man’s family.’
The guardsman ignored the snide remark and instead turned his attention back to the boy who was sitting up in the mud, clutching his head. A steady trickle of crimson was escaping through his fingers.
‘The boy is injured,’ said Aleksei.
‘Yes, he is,’ said Sir Khelenys, betraying no emotion. ‘He will come with me.’
‘He’s wanted for questioning,’ said the guardsman.
Sir Khelenys ignored the guardsman’s protest and rounded on the boy. ‘Get up,’ he said, and with great difficulty Yakov complied.
‘What do you want with him?’ asked Aleksei. There was fear in his voice.
‘I have questions for him too,’ said Sir Khelenys. Placing both hands around the hilt of his sword and yanking it free from the ground in one quick movement. He held the blade aloft for a moment and produced a cloth from somewhere beneath his cloak. In one clean sweep he cleared the blood and dirt from the sword. ‘Do you wish to make a claim for him?’
Aleksei’s hand moved instinctively toward the hilt of his blade but stopped short. ‘No, my lord. The boy is yours. Take him as you see fit.’
The armoured man grunted by way of acknowledgement and slid his sword into its hilt. He stared down at Yakov and then nodded in the direction of a makeshift path leading back around the houses. Without waiting for further commands, Yakov jumped up and began to walk. He had no idea what had just happened, and the thought of what might come next terrified him even more. He had never met a knight before, and knew very little about them. What he did know about the man that had apparently just saved his life, was that he was a killer, and very adept at it.
As they began to move out of sight of the guardsman and the shattered remains of his comrade, Yakov could not help but wonder if he would not have been better off staying with them in the first place.