The fact remains consistent for both wild animals and adolescent boys; the more you attempt to tame one, the more it will resist.
I remember the first day it became clearest to me my time at Jeffrey’s farm had come to an end. Wiping the sweat from my brow, I squinted against the harsh sun and saw nothing before me but unadulterated horizon, stretching out into infinity. The crops surrounding me formed a prison, the sickle in my hand a shackle I had held onto faithfully since my father’s death. My own demons had been pursuing me, and after two years had captured me where I stood.
My brother stilled the oxen and called to me when I continued my statuesque pose in the middle of the broad daylight. I heard my name and shut my eyes with the third invocation, wondering how a soul could feel so tired after only sixteen years on this mortal coil. I didn’t know what needed to change, but had reached a time of reckoning and threw the sickle down the fourth time Jeffrey summoned my name. “Christian, you get back here or don’t bother returning!” he said when I headed in the direction of the house.
I took his words to heart when I finally departed.
I had no idea where I was heading when I left, except to say I had enough sense to bury a few belongings near one of his trees before leaving his Lord’s property altogether. Hitching the same cart rides and maintaining the same foot travel which had brought me to the farm in the first place, I arrived at the same crossroads I would encounter seven years later, hopping down from the back of Paulo’s horse. Only this time, I stood there as an orphaned boy, with barely any employable skills and nothing else to my credit save but the sword by my side. I didn’t know what to expect when I headed for the larger city. I simply wished a place to rest my head and a way to fill my stomach by the day’s end.
The stench of the city hit my nostrils long before I arrived at the front gates. I gagged as I passed where the populace deposited their excrement and stared, wide-eyed, when I saw the heads of prosecuted criminals on the spires surrounding me. The first few roads which made up the main thoroughfare were abuzz with activity, young children racing past while the crowd gathered around storefronts and friars preaching salvation to those apt to listen. I used the few pence I had to my name to purchase a meal and slept out by the horses when one innkeeper took pity on me enough to allow it. The next day brought with it a reckoning, though. If I was going to make it on my own, I had to figure out how.
At first, I scrounged scraps and stole a loaf of bread when the baker had his back turned. I slept each night with the horses and bathed in the creek far outside town when the smell of horses saturated through my clothing. By a week into my newly acquired emancipation, I began to wonder if any of the local tradesmen would take on an apprentice while knowing I was far too old to count on receiving that sort of favor. I stumbled upon what would be my next profession on accident, three days later.
A group of men had been sitting outside one of the many taverns, drunk from ale and wasting time as the sun began to dip in the horizon. Lamps were being lit and summer was surrendering to autumn as the air had turned crisp and the wind aromatic with more than the scent of filth. I polished the blade of my sword, using a dirty cloth I’d torn from a discarded sack, in some effort to ignore the hunger gnawing at my stomach. I would’ve been content doing this, if not for being interrupted by one of the inebriated men.
“Hey, lad,” he called out, in a grating manner which brought my task to an immediate halt. He laughed, but I fought the urge to glance up at him when he continued. “What’s a boy doin’ with a man’s weapon?”
Two of his friends sniggered in the background. I heard the sound of him getting to his feet and sighed when he started walking toward where I sat. “Bet one could fetcha few pence for a blade like that. You buyin’ us a round tonight, lad?” he asked.
“The sword isn’t for sale,” I said. Once again, the cloth in hand resumed the stroke that had been interrupted. “Go back to your drinking and leave me be.”
“Listen to him, right? Thinks he’s a noble’s son and hasn’t learned better.” I finally glanced up at him when he paused and bent a few feet away from me. “You’re just a bloody street urchin. You stink like a horse’s arse, you do.”
“Better than reeking of drunkard.” A smirk curled the corner of my mouth, more of a dare than I was willing to admit to myself at the time. Still, a strange cause and effect played out in my mind, a series of events I hadn’t been able to visualize since my father had been taken from me. It was as though a muse had woken from its slumber, summoned to come out and play again after so long in a box. My father had taught me the game while instructing me on how to wield a sword.
Anticipate their next move. Form your reaction before he has a chance to do it.
I was astonished at how prophetic my imagination turned out to be.
He reached for the sword’s hilt, thinking he would catch me off-guard and jumped aback when I captured his wrist in my hand. What started as surprise transformed into anger, but I dodged when I knew he would throw a punch and kicked him in the shin before clamoring away. He held his leg and swore under his breath. I drew my weapon, anticipating his next move would be to charge at me. This served to be enough of a deterrent and my attacker withdrew to where his friends stood.
They, on the other hand, scowled at me, indicating the altercation had not yet come to an end. One pulled a dagger and walked forward, his eyes shouting malice while he advanced. I clutched the sword with both hands, a slight wave of nervousness running through me as I realized I was out of practice. Father had always told me I was nimble. I could only hope my wits remained sharp even if my skills had atrophied.
He swiped at the air to intimidate me and I lurched backward, catching my footing before the clumsy maneuver brought me to the ground. The others chuckled, one calling out, “He’s scared of you, Nate!” and my first challenger adding, “Split ‘em open and see how he likes his belly bein’ spilled all over the street.” I swallowed hard, attempting not to see that as a real possibility, and dodged another swipe out of instinct. Nate smirked, revealing a mouth full of rotten teeth, some missing in what I figured was a bar fight or two. He thrust the blade forward, forcing me to a clamor again and I nearly tripped when my feet moved from cobblestone to dirt. It kicked up a cloud, which caused Nate to launch into a coughing fit.
A slow, wicked grin crossed my lips as I had the idea I needed.
Freeing one hand, I reached down and picked up a handful of earth, casting it upward blindly and watching as the greater portion of it hit Nate’s face. He stumbled back, falling onto his ass and leaving himself exposed in the process. I kicked his wrist, sending the dagger flying onto the ground while he cried out in pain. I could almost see the wicked glint in my eyes when I scratched the surface of his neck with my blade. “Looks like I have another dagger,” I said. “Think I might have supper tonight after all.”
Nate groaned and I picked up my prize, taking it into the inn to relish the first good meal I’d had since arriving in the city.
The confrontation, however, had caused the seeds of revelation to germinate, bringing about a solution to my problem. The next night, I wagered my sword against a man armed with a similar blade and had him disarmed within minutes, to the delight of a crowd that had assembled. When I sold it to the blacksmith, I fetched a price high enough to guarantee the next weeks’ meals and lodging. Two nights later, another man challenged me. This time, we engaged in a series of exchanged blows before I claimed his weapon from him. I didn’t need to sell this one, however. The onlookers had tossed coins at me, which I scooped up before thanking them all with a bow.
While the victories should have ensured my needs were met for at least a month, the exhibitionist inside got the better of me. I found myself engaged in battles every few nights, collecting enough profit that I became an incorrigible bastard. I bedded my first prostitute and lavished on myself whatever my selfish heart desired. At night, if I had nothing left with which to purchase a room, I slept under the stars the same way I often did while traveling with my father.
Two months of this carried on, until warmer weather brought another band of travelers through the city and another batch of willing victims to fill my purse. On the first evening, I performed more of an exhibition and collected the coins thrown at me with a customary bow. The next two evenings were spent in opulence; with nothing left by night three, which demanded another demonstration take place. I strolled to my usual spot and declared myself open for challengers should anyone be bold enough to take the gauntlet thrown.
A gruff voice called out from the center of the crowd, “Think I might take you up on that offer, lad, if no one else is going to be brave enough to.”
The people parted ways around him. I stood, regarding the tall man who emerged while feeling a nervous flutter in my stomach at the sight. His face bore two scars, one that cut across his forehead and another down his left cheek. He removed a set of gloves and I raised an eyebrow at the two fingers missing from his left hand, seeing before me an entire tome of stories waiting to be told about adventures I could have only dreamt about. A sword sheathed by his side, the leather bore enough wear to suggest that pulling the blade was a common practice of his.
He tilted his head, a full mane of brown hair spilling onto his shoulder with the gesture. Given the amount of damage to him, his age was indistinguishable, but I assumed him no younger than his early thirties. “You’re a scrawny urchin,” he said once he had studied me to his satisfaction. He tossed the gloves to the side and removed his cloak, depositing it where his gloves had landed. “Doesn’t seem like a boy like you should be causing the stir you’ve been.”
My brow smoothed as a grin curled the corner of my mouth. “The name is Christian, sir,” I said. “And that looks like a lovely sword. I should like to own it.”
The stranger huffed, a smirk breaking out on his face. “Was about to accuse you of being educated for an urchin, but you just showed how much learning you’re still lacking.” He drew his sword, the smile evaporating, but the amusement still present in his eyes. “Your move first, Christian.”
I nodded, sliding my blade from its sheath as well and attempting to summon the confidence I had been building over the past few weeks. The crowd took several steps backward and watched with bated breath for our match to begin. I advanced forward with cautious steps, crouched low while taking hold of the hilt with both hands. A flicker of something indiscernible crossed my challenger’s face before he assumed the same posture.
We both sidestepped each other. I thought of the times I exchanged blows with my father, knowing before the first clash of our blades that I was facing someone much more experienced than my normal fare of half-baked drunks. My challenger failed to close the distance between us, baiting me to make the final steps myself. I did so, but pivoted to the side with my final step, rightly anticipating he’d try to sneak a swing in with my guard down.
It missed. I lifted my sword in a retaliatory strike. The stranger shifted and managed to intercept the blow, a wide grin on his face when the first clang shattered the silence. “Not bad,” he said, pushing off and taking a step away from me.
I furrowed my brow at the way he said that but shrugged the words off in favor of trying to visualize my next move. He made his before I could decide, however, and forced my reflexes to the test, with me turning one way and moving another to avoid two well-placed strikes. I caught one blow with my sword and started an exchange between the two of us, which lasted for a brief moment. Unfortunately, it also made me smugly consider I might actually be able to defeat him.
He seemed to sense it, because he changed his stance and came at me more aggressively. I failed to parry one shot and overcompensated with the next, leaving myself vulnerable to a counterattack. The sword flew from my hands before I could issue an objection and I gasped when I felt the tip of his blade touch the nape of my neck.
I shut my eyes, but still heard the smile in the way he spoke. “I believe I’ll be keeping my sword for a little while longer, lad.”
The audience erupted in applause. Opening my eyes, I fought to suppress a scowl as the crowd tossed their normal offerings to us. I turned to face him, waiting for him to go around collecting the money that should have paid for my supper. Instead, he sheathed his sword and reached for his cloak, securing it around his shoulders before slipping the gloves over his hands again.
I frowned. “I suppose you’ll be wanting that,” I said, pointing to where my sword lay.
He cast a quick glance at it and shrugged. “I don’t have much use for it. I trust you know we’ll be splitting the profit, however.”
“Splitting?” Raising an eyebrow, I watched him gather the coins from the ground. “You aren’t keeping it all to yourself?”
“Well, I could, but considering we both gave them a show, it’d hardly be fair.” The subtle smirk made its resurgence when we made eye contact again. “Or, I tell you what, lad. Why don’t I give it all to you and let you buy me a meal? Seems you scratch out enough of a living doing this, but you might consider switching jobs before you encounter a man willing to cut your throat.”
My disposition soured. “Not much of a living I can make doing much else.”
“Of course you can.” He plucked the last pieces of money from the ground and walked over to me, waiting for me to extend my hands before giving the coins to me. I secured them in my purse and he watched, waiting for me to finish the task and collect my sword to continue. We started a walk for the inn. “First, I’m going to demand to know where you picked up your fighting skills. You aren’t some spoiled noble who ran away from home?”
I laughed. We entered the inn, its main hall packed full of people with only a small table vacant for us to sit. The stranger waved over the innkeeper’s wife and placed an order of two ales and two plates of food. She scurried off to fill the order. “I’m not a noble,” I finally said, breaking the brief lull in conversation. “I’m an orphan.”
“A learned orphan. The crown is contributing so much to common folk these days.” When he adjusted his cloak, I saw an emblem in its crease and caught my breath. It was only when I realized the symbol varied greatly from my father’s killers that I relaxed again. My new companion seemed none-the-wiser to my observation, glancing around the room first, then looking back at me and folding his hands on top of the table. “I’m dying to hear more.”
I nodded toward the emblem on his cloak. “Who the hell are you?”
He glanced down at it and laughed. His hand smoothed out the fold and for the first time, I made out the stitching of a black rose. “A not-so-honest businessman. You can call me Roland.”
“Roland nothing else. Too many names complicate things if you ask me. Your turn.”
“Christian Richardson. My father was Richard Hardi, a traveling merchant. He was killed when I was fourteen. Lost my mother to a fever long before that, so here I am.”
“Here you are.” Roland nodded, scratching at the stubble on his neck. His eyes never left me through the gesture. “Your father the one to teach you the blade skills?”
I nodded in return. “Taught me how to use swords and daggers. He also taught me how to read.”
Roland laughed, as if something I said was greatly amusing. “A literate, sword-trained street urchin. No wonder you’ve been rocking the boat around here. I heard a merchant in the next village over talking about how you stole a man’s sword right from his hands.”
My brow furrowed again. “You came all this way to see me?”
“Hardly. But considering I was already here on business I figured I’d look out for you.”
“Oh, I see.” I glanced at his cloak again quickly. “What kind of not-so-honest business do people with black roses do?”
“Mercenary work. Are you familiar with what that is?”
“A little. My father mentioned mercenaries a few times.”
“Did he now?” Roland huffed, pausing our conversation when the innkeeper’s wife returned with our mugs of ale. He lifted his to his mouth, taking a generous drink from it while I sipped mine courteously and nodded thanks to the woman. Roland waited until she served our dinner, raising an eyebrow while lifting his first bite to his lips. “I can’t say I’ve heard of many merchants who concern themselves with all of the things your father did. You said he was killed?”
“Yes.” The evocation threatened to chase away my appetite. I swallowed down a piece of mutton, attempting to mask my discomfort with the subject. “Bandits. They were attempting to steal something from him. I fled before they could get me, too.”
My gaze drifted away from Roland. I felt the weight of his stare, though, and wondered if he saw the half-truth in the way I lingered in silence the few seconds we both indulged it. He shifted in his seat, though, and caught my eye again when he shook his head. “You can’t be older than eighteen,” he said.
“Sixteen,” I corrected. “Just turned back in the winter.”
“So, what did you do for the two years in-between?”
“What does it matter?”
Roland chuckled. “This’s a relatively new racket for you, lad. Just wondering what you might have been doing that kept you out of trouble this long.”
I shrugged, shoveling more food into my mouth. “My brother tends a farm a day’s journey out from here. I got tired of helping him.”
“No, you’re not the farming type.”
“That’s what my father once told me.”
“He had a good eye, then. Especially putting a sword in your hands.” He sighed, finally paying attention to his meal and forcing a pause in his end of the conversation. He savored a few bites before continuing. “I never knew my father. He whored around enough to put a baby in a woman’s belly and that’s how I came to be. I was raised by the ruffians who came to call on my mother and learned pretty early that life’s only one step removed from hell. That’s why I got good at what I do.”
“Which is being a mercenary?” I glanced from my plate to Roland, hoping I didn’t wear my relief at the change in topic too close to the surface.
“Not just any kind of mercenary.” He popped a small potato into his mouth and set his fork beside his half-eaten dinner. Folding his arms across his chest, he held my gaze with an ounce of severity in his, finishing the formality of chewing and swallowing with swiftness so he could speak once more. “You make a fair coin fighting other people’s battles, but the real money’s in specialization. I paid my dues and decided it was time the nobles helped pay a bit more of them.” One finger tapped the rose on his cloak. “That’s why I have this.”
“A black rose?”
“A Brotherhood. The rich pay us a little extra to do the things they don’t want others catching them doing. Like theft. Or murder. And with the red and white roses fighting over the throne, I figured it was high time I made my own.”
I frowned as I attempted not to glance at the symbol again. “I once saw another man with a different emblem on his cloak.”
Roland smirked knowingly. “How’d you like to have one of your own?”
“My own what? Emblem?”
“No. Cloak like this.” His grin dissipated, the seriousness returning to his expression. “You want to learn how to actually do something with that sword of yours? How to make proper money doing it? I can teach you. You’re natural enough as it is. And damn, I’ve never seen somebody so light on his feet that wasn’t a lady before. You’d have half a dozen men on the ground before they knew what hit them.”
The notion caused me some alarm, not because Roland suggested I might be good at killing people, but because the thought didn’t bother me as much as I felt it should. My father had always said death was an unfortunate part of life, but I never saw myself as the one carrying out its orders. Especially after the fate which had befallen Richard Hardi.
At the same time, the thought springing from that one made the world around me freeze. I stared into the distance, seeing the face of my father’s killer and wondering if he might have been someone like Roland. For the first time, I realized what had been missing all this time, why my time spent at Jeffrey’s farm only made me more and more restless. I wanted to punish the people who had stolen my father. I wanted to understand once and for all why he had become a target of such senseless brutality. And maybe – just maybe – sinking into their world might bring me to wherever such a group of men existed.
Swallowing hard, I finally managed to look back at Roland and nodded. “You think I could get better at using a sword?” I asked.
He laughed, lowering his arms and picking up his fork again. With a smirk, he continued eating. “Christian, I think you might finally find your calling.”
“I think you might be right.” I polished off the rest of my food eagerly and drank the remainder of my ale. Roland raised an eyebrow at me when I stood from my chair. “I have a few things to collect, but we could be on the road within an hour.”
Roland laughed. “Easy there. Better to linger in town and return after a good night’s rest. You go collect your things, but I’ll get us rooms and arrange some company if that’s your sort of thing.”“Yes, sure.” The prospect of a whore took second place to anything else, but I accepted the company later when I returned to the inn with the meager belongings I had acquired in the city. As I lay in bed with the warm body of a redheaded woman by my side, I stared into the darkness, a renewed purpose to my life.