The blade fell blindly and cut clean with a wooden crunch. The old, yellow-skinned woman reached across the makeshift table and took the young man’s hand before the knife came down a second time.
“Ten fingers too many for you?” she asked with just a hint of impatience on her sour breath.
Startled, the distracted vendor looked to the scarred tabletop and discovered he’d run out of carrots and risked adding bits of himself to the sliced vegetables piling up in front of him. He smiled and apologized as he filled her wicker basket with beets, onions and of course carrots, all well washed and pruned of their greens. She dropped a trio of small coins into his palm.
“You’ll need a few more of those if you’re hoping to catch her eye,” the old woman offered dryly as she walked away. “And close your mouth if you’re going to gawk. You look like a fish on a hook.”
Cat shut his lips quick enough to make his teeth rattle. The girl didn’t acknowledge him but if she did he wasn’t interested in adding to her poor impression of him with stained hands, a soiled apron and a slack jaw.
No, she was clearly oblivious to him, he felt sadly certain of that. He first caught sight of her as she stepped down the gangplank of a sleek, ebony schooner. Head and body wrapped loosely in a heavy, colorless cloak, her age and gender weren’t immediately obvious. As she left the ship’s crew behind to secure the sails and set the mooring lines, she shrugged off the formless wrap and nearly stopped the boy’s heart in his chest.
She walked through the marketplace carelessly, raven haired with eyes the color of deep seas or threatening skies, her skin shining like dark honey. A pair of men’s breeches snuggly tailored outlined her strong legs tucked in tall leather boots. Her scarlet blouse was neatly belted at the waist and plunged at the neck to frame a thick gold torc resting atop the twin crests of her full breasts.
Only months from his nineteenth birthday, the wide eyed farm boy, witness to all manner of visitors to Burnt Bay and the curiosity they invoked in the locals, found it odd that while some were as compelled to stare as he was, most seemed to avert their glances and stranger still, move in deference from her path.
Not everyone shared this odd aversion. Spit from the creaky mouth of the Broken Tooth and into the failing light of the late afternoon, a trio of hard men stood laughing and cursing in the tavern’s shadow.
The smallest and most raggedy of the three was known as Wil Bitter, local cutpurse and aspiring cutthroat. One of his companions was a thin man of average height, wearing the standard garb of a sailor for hire but set apart by a hairless face and head crisscrossed with dozens of angry red scars. The remaining man was built as broadly as an oak tree and nearly as tall. He wore long hair pulled back in a greasy ponytail, his face covered in a thick matted beard. Standing a head and a half above an average man, he was fearsome with shoulders wide enough to need twisting his frame to push through most doorways but with enough muscle that he could reduce any threshold to ruin if it suited him better.
These same men, watching the girl’s easy progress through the crowd, slid in behind her as she disappeared into a covered alleyway that ran between a pair of storefronts. Beyond the most frequented paths and buildings of Burnt Bay, a warren of alleys and walkways connected a sprawl of haphazard shanties that quickly confused the unfamiliar. Suddenly uneasy with the possibilities, Cat threw a canvas tarp over his produce and snatched up his coin box. A few steps away, Hap, a soft headed boy with a lazy eye, sat counting hen’s eggs.
“Take this and keep it safe for me. I’ll be back for it in a little while. Got it, Hap?”
The boy looked up quizzically but nodded his silent agreement. Satisfied, Cat felt for the small knife and his side and sprinted towards the alley.
Two dozen feet in and the sounds of the crowds already dulled, the boy found himself at a fork. He stood still, ears straining, heart pounding. To his left he made out a grunt, men’s laughter and muffled curses. Following the voices, he ran into a gate blocking his way forward, chained and locked and flanked on both sides by wooden walls each inset with a badly hewn door. With another laugh to guide him, he put his shoulder to a door that gave way with a screech of splinters and crashed back on its hinges against the wall.
For a moment, time hung suspended, caught like a fly in heavy cream.
“Wrong turn, laddie,” said Wil quietly and the spell was broken.
The menace of his tone was further bolstered by his two friends reaching into their belts for a pair of well-used blades. The girl, who on closer inspection was nearer to Cat’s age than her confidence and swagger had suggested, looked unperturbed by the turn of events. But when Wil presented a thin, curved dagger and began to dance toward the boy, her eyes widened in fear for him as she nodded towards the open doorway and mouthed, Run.
The two men grinned as Cat stood his ground and the little thief waltzed closer. When the blade flashed towards his belly, the boy pivoted to one side and let the man’s momentum turn his upper body and shift his weight forward. Wil found himself suddenly caught by one arm with a hand pinching the back of his neck. Little more than a sack of grain to him, the young farmer took the shocked man off his feet and ran him face first into the wreck of the door resting against the wall. The wood held but something else gave a crunch and Wil Bitter slid silently to the floor.
When he turned back around, Cat found that the remaining men had put distance between them and now faced him on two fronts. With their eyes locked warily on the intruder, neither noticed the dark-haired beauty until she had set herself slyly behind the scarred one and brought her boot up with enthusiasm between his legs. She smiled as he dropped with a squeal.
The giant gave the girl a murderous stare and lunged at the boy quicker than expected for a man of his size. His steel bit only the air but his intentions were enough to drive the smaller man deeper into the room and away from the escape offered by the open doorway. As the enormous man’s shadow fell on him, the boy realized that it would only be a matter of time before he was cornered and bleeding on the dirt floor. The thought was fleeting as the scarred man had regained his footing and now had a hand wrapped tightly around the girl’s belt as he tugged her closer.
Ignoring the threat of the big man at his back, Cat stepped in and grabbed the girl’s attacker by the wrist of his knife hand and wrenched his arm up and behind him. Before he could apply enough leverage to force the knife from its grasp, a massive hand fell on the boy’s head like a hammer. Impossibly strong fingers curled around his skull, digging painfully into his brows and pulling his head back.
“Rats will be making a home of your guts within the hour, boy. Look at her. Was she worth all this?” the giant said somewhere above and behind him. The girl let out a scream of rage and the big man hesitated. Instinctively, Cat pulled loose his pitiful root cutter and swung wildly back at the source of the deep, growling voice.
The hand dropped the top of his skull and the room shook with an agonized roar. The knife’s edge had found one of the man’s eyes and split it like a poached egg--the white, the earth brown yolk, cut cleanly at a diagonal--the lid left flapping and bleeding. The scarred man slid free of the suddenly lax hold and spun around to smash a fist across the boy’s jaw. Stunned he stumbled back, hands clenched and raised only to find two blades already pointed at his throat.
“There’s no easy way about this now, boy,” said the man with the carved head and face.
“Guaranteed dying is going to be a slow, messy affair for you. But in the end? You’re just gonna die and leave a stinking wet pile to be mopped through the cracks,” said the giant through gritted teeth. “Might inspire a good drinking song though. Your screams being the chorus.”
From the doorway came a discreet cough. Two hooded figures stepped into the room not waiting for an invitation.
“If there are songs to be written, far better musicians have arrived. Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Doo?”
The Captain was broad chested, slightly shorter than his companion but exuded an unmistakable authority. He was clad all in a rich, dark green including the fur trimmed cloak he wore. The cowl fell over his eyes leaving them in shadow, only the gleam of his white teeth and olive skin, dark moustache and beard visible. The man beside him dropped his hood to reveal a headful of tightly oiled braids and wore pieces of leather and mail on his chest. Both men carried swords and dirks at their belts.
“Now, allow me to clarify your circumstances, gentlemen,” began the Captain. “I can say with all certainty that by accosting the treasured daughter of the Grim Sword, you have put yourselves in a most precarious position.”
The bleeding giant and his mate exchanged pained looks. The girl could only smile and shrug.
“And what part in this do you play, boy?” asked the Captain.
“None, sir. A victim of fickle fortune. Nothing more,” the girl answered before the boy could find thoughts or words of his own.
“Interesting. Name, boy?”
“Cat. Cat Calhoun,” he stammered in answer as his face flushed.
“Calhoun? An uncommon name for a boy of such modest appearance. A trader in vegetables I assume? Regardless, are you responsible for the large one’s injury?” he asked with a hint of laughter in his voice.
“I am, sir,” he answered offering up the tiny knife with its reddened tip as evidence.
“I see. Seems this little cat can scratch, wouldn’t you agree Mr. Doo?”
The Captain pulled up his sleeves, briefly revealing a faded glyph tattooed to the skin of one wrist as he flexed his fingers in soft leather gloves.
“Well now, how best to resolve this awkward conundrum? M’lady, perhaps you can continue on with your errands as it pleases you? Although, I’d suggest bringing along a crewman or two if you insist on exploring the more colorful corners of the district,” the swordsman suggested as he looked to the girl. She flashed a broad smile and straightened the cloak at her shoulder.
“A painful and unhappy chore for someone no doubt. Join me for dinner when you can, Captain--as a thank you for your care. And please pay these gentlemen only what they’re owed,” she said as she stepped into the fading day and disappeared.
“Mr. Doo, please attend to young master Cat Calhoun here. See that he finds his way to where he needs to be,” the Captain gave a wave of his hand and his associate gestured towards the door. “As for you gentlemen, I recall talk of music. Come closer, I’m most curious hear how you sing.”
Outside in the alley, the boy watched as the dark-skinned crewman swung wide the door opposite the one they had just exited. It opened to a room little larger or in any way distinct from the last. Holding the door open, the man stood silently and waited for the boy to step inside. Before he could ask why they simply didn’t return along the path to the market, a heavy blow fell across the back of his neck and the room exploded into a thousand stars.
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