Short Story – Robbers
You’d be ill advised to walk the quarter at this hour but that’s exactly what I’m doing. None of us expect trouble on our own doorstep do we? And yet I can hear trouble approaching: a frenzied whispering and sliding of feet. Drink warms my veins and my ears still ring from the tap room, but it’s not enough to distract me from the hushed conversation taking place just a few yards away.
On instinct I press myself to a wall, almost slipping in something soft and reeking as I try to make out the words.
“I’m trying, he’s fucking heavy!”
Two voices, a man and a woman. The shuffling continues. Where I’m standing a weak stream of light spills through the narrow street, showing the wet cobbles, a bottle, a broken jar, rags and nightsoil. I squint hard towards the sound of them speaking. Two pairs of feet appear, taking small, awkward steps. As they come forward I see they bear something large. A person, slumped into a U shape between them as they stagger and hurry under the weight.
They wear boots, cloaks that hang to their knees and, jutting from beneath the fabric where they bend to their task, swords.
This is no bickering couple, my mind races to keep up with what’s happening. Timing my movements with theirs I slide beneath a window. The light from within casts a pale yellow rectangle in the street in which I’ll be able to see them better as they move past me. I cross my hands and grip my sword and dagger. I wait.
They’ve jumped some poor sod and are taking him somewhere quiet to finish the job.
I bite down the urge to just let them pass, as if I’d never seen a thing.
It’s none of your business, just go home.
They come into the light. Long threads of blood run down the slack fingers of the man they carry. To my astonishment, I take a pace forward. Self defence, that’s what this is, they’ll probably be after me next anyway. I draw my weapons, heart pounding, suddenly very angry and gripping tighter than I would like.
“Who are you and what are you doing?” I hear myself say. I step out and press the tip of the sword into the back of the nearest person. It’s the taller of the two, most likely the man. Everything becomes very still. Someone barks with laughter in the next street, something small scampers in the dark. It seems muffled through the blood rushing in my ears.
“None of your business!” hisses the woman, she faces me, squinting in the light over the man’s shoulder. She has dark, tightly braided hair, long limbs and amber eyes. As she snarls I see one of her front teeth is missing and just above it her lip is scarred deep.
The man doesn’t move.
“Yani!” he whispers back at her in warning, partially answering my question.
“Well Yani,” I say, sounding more confident than I feel “I think two people carrying a body down my street is very much my business. For one thing-”
The man lets his shoulders drop, and there’s a thud as he lets go of the body. My cheeks grow hot as he pivots on his toes, turning towards me. In the same graceful motion he draws his sword, holding it high and pointing it at me. He takes a few cautious paces back, his face a knot of concentration. Yani scowls at him, still holding the body under the arms.
“Mowan! What are you doing?”
She looks at my sword and dagger, and lowers the body to the ground. When Mowan does not respond she draws her own sword and stands beside him. I realise, my insides turning to water, that I hadn’t thought this far ahead.
Mowan’s sword gleams sharp in the light from the window. Yani’s is dull, and I can see the blade is daubed with drying blood. Their points are level with my eyes, beyond the robbers’ faces glare at me. I can see Mowan is dark haired like Yani. He has a few days of scruffy beard on his chin.
“As my sister said,” his voice is deep and measured “None of your business.”
Their orange-brown eyes are hungry, like those of wolves. I don’t dare lower my weapons, they would be on me in a breath. I join my dagger with my sword, pointing both blades at each in turn. My heart squirms in my chest. I have to do something. I lunge at Mowan.
He doesn’t move, merely lifts his sword a little, parrying my attack as if he were shooing a fly. In the corner of my eye I see Yani move, her sword cutting high at my head.
“Fool!” she hisses. But I am ready. I catch her blade with my dagger and she frees it instantly, moving to stab me in the face.
“Stop.” Says Mowan. Yani freezes in the act, her brother’s hand on her hilt. She looks at him, chastened, but does not object. I now feel the cold tickle of Mowan’s sword beneath the soft flesh of my chin. For an instant I wonder how many people have died on that blade. He knows his business. I lower my weapons.
“I suppose this is all some unfortunate accident is it?” my voice creaks a little, irritating me for making me sound petulant, scared even, for in truth I am terrified.
Yani’s lip curls up, into what could be the beginning of a smile, but she snorts with disdain. When she speaks her eyes are on me, moving quickly between my face and my weapons, as if weighing me up. But her words are directed at her brother.
“This is getting us nowhere. There’s no time.”
Mowan is silent, staring thoughtfully at me. He takes a small pace forward, and I feel the point press into my skin without yet breaking it. Yani moves to cover him. I swallow, and plant my feet, telling myself not to simply turn and flee. As my weight shifts I become aware of the purse on my hip. A lot lighter than it was before the night began, but it might just save me.
With my dagger hand, I slowly draw back my cloak, showing my purse.
“Listen,” I say, but Mowan frowns. Yani’s eyes dart over me, studying, before opening wide in realisation.
“He thinks we’re robbers!”
Her face pinches briefly as she suppresses a laugh. Her expression moves to irritation. Mowan takes a pace back, and with great relief I feel the sword leave me. Anger rushes in to take the place of my fear.
“You’re moving about in the dark with a bloodied sword and a body, what am I supposed to think?” I say.
Mowan cocks an eyebrow, regarding me from head to toe.
“You’re hardly acting honourably, sneaking up on two people trying to help an injured friend.”
I scoff at the story, and the accusation levelled at me. “Self defence!” I say.
Yani sheaths her sword, draws up her hood and bends to take up the man once again. I can see now that he’s breathing.
“What are you doing with him?”
I gesture with my dagger, lowering the sword and covering the purse with my cloak. Yani snarls impatiently, but Mowan looks at me, his voice soft and dangerous.
“It’s no business of yours stranger. Put away your sword and be on your way.”
Not robbers then. I sag with relief. As I struggle to think what they might be I hear a hissing sound from further down the alley, like iron quenching. Mowan turns his face towards it, and I can see his eyes round and white with fear. I grip my sword once more.
He’s about to sheath his blade and help his sister but she’s grunting as she drags the unconscious man to a nearby doorway. Drawing her sword she stands beside her brother.
“No time ‘Wan! We end this here, now.”
I expect her angry gaze to rest on me, but there’s only urgency in her voice, the way she moves. The pair share a brief glance, I feel almost ashamed to witness it. Together they turn to the sound at the end of the street. There’s a tiny light in the darkness, not soft like a candle flame but piercing white, almost blue, like a spark that does not die. I blink and pale ghosts of it swim behind my eyelids. The light’s getting closer and I can see a person carries it, but despite the brightness they remain in shadow, gliding steadily along the ground without quavering.
My gaze flickers to the boots of the injured man, to Mowan and Yani, their teeth bared as they ready themselves. It’s my cue to leave, get as far away from here as possible until all this has died away.
I still have my sword in my hand. We are all in far greater danger than I had initially thought. They’re not going to kill me. With cold realisation it occurs to me that I’ve waylaid them, two people trying to save a friend. They face something so terrible that it makes me want to run, beyond the city, out into the dark and not stop until dawn. I am anchored in place not by guilt, but by what drew me into this foolishness: to protect my city, my street, and now these people. I owe it to them to stay, and fight. I grip my dagger too.