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1: The Duty of the Strong

My father gave me exactly one piece of good advice before staggering, blind with alcohol, out of my life and (if there remains a single god to smile upon me) into an unmarked grave: “Mind your own fuckin’ business.” Usually I pay his sage words careful heed, but there are times — rash, ill-advised moments of folly — when circumstance overwhelms good sense and I commit acts which bear consequences I did not intend. Killing Baron Rothfork was such an act. At the time, I didn’t even know his name.

Knowing what would follow, would I have acted differently? To be honest, probably not. He was an unpleasant man.

The waning day found me taking my evening meal in an inn at a crossroads, crowded because a rich man and his green-cloaked retainers filled half the space, leaving the rest of us shoulder-to-shoulder on long benches, exchanging sweat and curses while the baron’s dogs ran between our legs, their claws scratching at the rough planks of the floor while drool and fleas splattered across our shins. Most of the windows were closed against the chill of the coming night, and the candles dripping their wax from the chandeliers did little to lift the gloom. I sat and ate, aware of the men I was pressed against. On my left, a kid with a laughable beard and a sword that would likely get him killed. On my right, a very large man. My shoulder pressed against a hardened bicep. With effort I contained my curiosity and kept my gaze on my plate.

I was chewing meat I did not care to identify when the young baron grabbed a serving girl and pulled her forcefully onto his lap, sliding his hand inside her dress. Her cries were drowned out by the laughter of his men. Her struggles only added to the merriment. “I like ’em feisty!” the baron shouted, and his retainers roared their approval. I placed my eating knife carefully on the table next to my plate. I was no longer hungry.

The woman cried out again. I felt the big man next to me tense, and I hazarded a look. He was big, but for his size he was lean and hard. He wore a simple chain shirt that had been repaired many times; in places the links bunched while other areas were only thinly protected. The shirt he wore beneath was tattered, more hole than cloth. His long dark hair was tucked behind his ear, revealing the tension in his square jaw and the crease of his brow pulled down over deep-set eyes. A scar, still slightly pink and puffy, bisected his eyebrow and continued down his cheek.

Another cry from the serving-girl, barely audible over the laughter of the baron and his men. My gut knotted, but I am a smallish man, slightly built, talented in my own ways, perhaps, but helpless to prevent what was about to happen. The big man was breathing carefully.

“It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak,” I said, softly.

“Perhaps,” said the big man, in a voice for me alone, the product of a throat that had known no shortage of shouting, “But I am more inclined to help the girl.” He looked at me directly. His eyes were deep blue, sapphires buried in the shadow of his brow. “But I am just one.”

“Sometimes simple brawls have unexpected collateral damage,” I said. “Where no one is looking.”

He smiled, revealing a void where his front teeth should have been. His face was hard, and scarred, but his eyes held mirth. He put a hand on my shoulder, a big, hard hand that bent me under its weight. “It is the duty of the strong,” he said, “to protect the unarmed.”

He didn’t wait for my response. He rose with a roar, tipping our bench, his blade gleaming in the light of the fire, a living thing almost, flawless and beautiful. I rolled beneath the table adjacent, lost in dancing shadows and the rush to flee the violence.

“Come here, you little bitch baron,” the big man shouted. “Come over here and learn what it means to be a man!”

The baron stood, dumping the girl on the floor, and for a moment I thought his pride was going to render my skills unnecessary. He drew his sword, stepped forward two paces, and paused, sizing up the man who had called him out. “Nobody speaks to me that way,” he said. To his men he said, “Kill the dog.”

Twenty green-cloaked men rose and I didn’t like the chances of my new friend, however strong he was. I was not going to tip that scale, however; he was on his own. All that was left for me was to make his sacrifice worthwhile. I chose a thicker blade, a cutting knife rather than a stabbing one. I thought perhaps the extra blood on the floor would end the violence more quickly.

From the cover of one wobbly table to the next I moved, though in the confusion and noise I need hardly have bothered. The big man was using his gleaming blade to keep the greencloaks from getting too close, but it looked like he’d only killed a couple of them so far. I continued toward my goal.

When I reached the baron I smiled. They say that poetry is lost in this world, that the bluster of commerce and war has hardened our souls to beauty, but it is lost only to those who don’t know where to look. There is the poetry of moments, a poetry of found things that a perceptive mind understands. Take for example, a moment when one emerges from beneath a table, holding a very sharp knife, to discover the genitals of a man about to violate a woman while she watches her would-be savior perish. The poetry is further enhanced if one is well-versed in the various ways to use a knife, and if the possessor of the genitals releases a particularly shrill scream when they are removed from him.

I almost didn’t kill the baron; living his life so altered would almost certainly be another thing of beauty, an enduring sonnet. But he would hold a grudge, and he had seen my face. I cut his throat as he clung to his gushing crotch, interrupting his continued scream with a burble.

The baron’s scream had turned the attention of the greencloaks my direction. “Time to go!” I shouted to the big man, in the event he was still alive. I dove for the shadows and the window in the corner that was still open despite the chill. Always know where the exits are, my mother used to say. My mother was a wise woman.