© 2009, Patrick Hester. All Rights Reserved
When they staggered as a group from the inn, all they could manage was to giggle like fools. Fyet was the first to stumble, causing Eli, who was supporting the other at the time, to stumble as well. This caused a chain reaction and they all ended up on the snowy ground laughing.
Broat was able to stand before the others and he pulled each of them to their feet and pointed them down the lane towards the ship, giving a shove for each to start them walking again.
“That’s him,” someone whispered. Eli looked around, curious as to the source. He could just make out the shapes of four men standing in their path and well in the shadows away from the torches burning on either side of the inn’s door. He smiled at them, about to ask for a hand and wondering how silly they must all look. “Kill him!” the one closest to him shouted and he saw something flash in the torchlight.
“Murder!” Broat shouted at the top of his lungs, diving for the man and shoving Eli aside all in the same motion.
What happened next happened quickly. Eli half-stumbled into the wall as Broat pushed past him. He heard a grunt and saw that Broat had tackled the man who’d been coming for him, driving him back into the next shadowy figure and taking both to the ground. Before he caught his breath, someone else was leaping over the men and coming towards Eli, an innocent look on his face. He saw another flash of steel as a knife shot towards him. He slid aside, then grabbed for the attacker’s hands, struggling to keep the knife away from his body. Sounds of fighting erupted all around him, of men grunting and gasping, but he didn’t have time to think of that – he had to keep this one knife away from him.
Everything was moving slowly, but his mind became sharp, the sound of his own heart thumping in his ears. He spun with the other man, each trying to move the knife where they wanted it. Someone hit him from behind and he fell on top of his attacker. Another blow and he saw stars swirling all around him. The man he’d been fighting with went still. Panic flashed across his mind and he knew they were going to kill him, kill him and his friends. More shouting as the stars faded from his sight. Someone kicked him so hard he flipped off the man he’d fallen on and slammed into the wall. The sound of boots running on stone and he knew it was over…
Torchlight flooded everywhere. As quick as the light bloomed into the little corner, the fighting was over. He sat on the ground next to his friends, trying to clutch his head and his side at the same time, every breath causing a sharp pain behind his eyes. A warm, damp cloth was pressed against his head and a gentle voice told him to hold it tight. Looking up caused him to see stars, but he managed. Militia guardsman were all around.
“He’ll be all right, I think,” said a woman. She was the innkeeper from The Salty Sea. She was smiling at him as she wound a bandage around the cloth. “Have a headache for days,” she added. He looked around. Three crewmen from The Seaspray were on their knees across the lane from him. A fourth lay sprawled where he’d fallen, his empty eyes staring up at the stars and his own knife sprouting up from his chest. Eli shuddered. That was the man he fell on. Guards stood around them, rifles in hand and ready to fire. One was going through and tossing their belongings on the ground before them. As the last of four matching purses clanked down, the searcher let out a whistle.
“Ten gold each,” he said.
“Who paid you?” demanded a man in a long, dark coat. Eli couldn’t make out his rank. “Were you recruiting or out for murder?”
“Got nothing to say,” said one. Eli looked at him. He looked familiar. Turning, he met Narut’s eye, who gave him a single nod. This was the fellow he’d pointed out before, the one who’d been watching Eli on the ship. What was going on?
“We’ll see about that. Take them to the jail.”
“Yes sir,” said one of the guards. They started hauling the crewmen to their feet, then led them off one by one. The dead man was left where he lay. The man in the long coat turned to Eli and his friends. Even facing them, his rank was hidden beneath his coat, so Eli was unsure how he was supposed to react. He tried to get up, but everything was spinning. The innkeeper pushed down firmly on his shoulders and he was surprised at how easily she held him there.
“You lot sticking to your story?” the man asked Narut. Before he could answer, the innkeeper spoke up.
“Saw most of it myself. They attacked these boys as soon as they were out my door.” Eli stared up at her silver hair, done up in a bun. She reminded him of his grandmother.
“You’re certain?” asked the man, clearly an officer.
“I am. Will swear it in court if need to,” she replied. He was already waving her off.
“Okay – you three,” he pointed at Narut, Fyet and Broat. “Get him back to the ship. Have a medic look him over. And count yourselves lucky – whether it was murder on their minds or snatching you to sell to the pirates, I don’t know. But they were determined to see it through.” He spat as if for emphasis before turning and walking away.
Narut was there first, sliding under Eli’s arm and pulling him to his feet. “Up you go,” he said softly. They each thanked the innkeeper, who smiled and wished them well before disappearing behind the heavy door of her inn. Eli could hear the sound of a bolt being slid into place.
“It wasn’t about pirates, was it?” he whispered to his friend. Narut shook his head. Eli did his best to put one foot in front of the other on the way back to The Seaspray, thinking about his conversation with Sergent Fesh. It seemed a long time ago, but now it was fresh in his mind.
“A man like that wants what he wants and he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. And he doesn’t want you coming back.”
Eli shuddered and it wasn’t because of the cold.