Delwind was in the stocks again.
He was soaked to the skin, tired and hungry. He had been subjected to the town's displeasure again. Dozens of small children, throwing their apple peels and pork rinds at him; corpulent housewives emptying chamberpots of urine over his head. Public sympathy for his plight was at an all time low.
Delwind was nearing his sixteenth birthday, and his manhood. He was tall for his age but alarmingly thin and entirely lean, and his would-be handsome face was pinched and bony. His blond hair was lifeless and lank, and his wrists were thin as oak saplings. Before long they would be able to slip out of the stock-holes.
His health had gradually declined after the death of his brother, Banech, after he had caught the bloody flux. Without his father, who had abandoned them not three summers past, Delwind had to manage their farm alone, for very little food. And the stress was taking its toll. So Delwind had resorted to thievery in his spare time, filching coin, food and anything else he could get his hands on. And he was good at it, too.
It was only the third time ever he had been caught. And he stole all the time. He had been unlucky that, while the butcher hadn't been looking, his son had been walking around the corner. He had squawked like a startled pigeon and his father had nearly cut off a finger as he turned to see Delwind tucking a hunk of venison under his tunic.
Delwind had turned to run out of the shop but the butcher had caught him around the collar. Delwind had slipped on his dropped venison and landed humiliatingly at the butcher's feet. The butcher had then proceeded to carry him hence to the stocks, where he had been locked for the rest of the day.
Dusk was now falling, and the tirade of abuse had ceased at last. Delwind's feet were aching, his stomach grumbling, and his mind full of angry notions that he would never be able to enter the butcher's shop again to steal meat. He wouldn't get out of there again without being frisked to within an inch of his privacy.
His mother would be ashamed. For the townspeople's attititude towards her had worsened since Delwind had started to get caught. And his mother hated charity.
But what she didn't understand that if Delwind didn't steal, they would starve. None of the other townspeople were prepared to help them.
Delwind's bitter musings were interrupted as a woman stepped into the road. She was dressed in a long black travelling cloak with a heavy hood that hid her face. Whoever she was, she definitely wasn't local, and might be kind enough to help him.
"Oi!" said Delwind loudly, trying to attract her attention. Her hood turned in his direction, and he caught the glint of a pair of sharpened blue eyes, and a wisp of raven hair. She looked tired; she had clearly been travelling a long while. But then her gaze jerked away, as if she felt sorry for him but was too scared to help.
Once she had moved on, Delwind looked furtively around the town square. When he was sure no-one was looking, he twisted his hand around and began to manoeuvre the stocks open - despite his lack of food, he was very strong.
Delwind looked quickly around for the strange woman, whoever she was, but found nothing. His stomach sinking in disappointment, he turned for home, keeping to the shadows lest someone accosted him and returned him to the stocks.
And then he heard something. Voices.
There were two of them, and they weren't smooth like a young woman's, but deep and gruff. Delwind poked his head around the corner to look.
One of them was clearly foreign, maybe from Meadon or the Fisherman's Reach. He had tanned skin and a scrubby brown beard. He was much taller than the other, who looked much more local. Before they could glimpse him, Delwind withdrew his head.
His curiosity aroused, Delwind proceeded to a higher terrace up the hillside, on which most of the stonemasons' houses were built. From here he had a good vantage point of where the men were standing.
"You'rre a bloody fool, Borden!" said the short man. "I'm nowherre neeear wherre I need to be!"
His accent was strange and lilting. Yes, it was probably Meadonic. Delwind looked over the stone railing at the edge of the terrace, directly down to see what the men were poring over. It seemed to be a map.
"Find your own way, then," snapped Borden. "I've done my best."
"The best?" growled the foreigner. "You peeeople arre brainless idiots! I'm paaaying you good money to leeed me to my location."
"I don't want your stinking copper coin," retorted Borden. "No-one in the whole of the Archipelago accepts your stinking, worthless discs of scrap metal. At least here in Langard we actually make our coin of valuable materials."
"How daaarre you!" roared the foreigner. "Thaaat is a dirrect insult against my country!"
"You've been nothing but rude and ungrateful," said Borden forcefully. "From now on, you can find your own way, Errgan."
With shock, Delwind saw the foreigner unsheath a foiled scimitar. Before the short man could speak the sword had protruded out of his back, and blood had filled his throat.
The foreigner turned distastefully away from the corpse and looked up - to see the black-robed woman ahead of him in the street.
"Aaand whaaat do you waaant?" he snarled, looking at her. "Eeeavesdropping on my prrivate plaaans, were you?"
He began to stalk towards her, his scimitar held out in front of him.
Delwind dropped from the terrace, landing catlike next to the dead Borden. Mercifully, he was holding a sword.
"Wha- what are you doing?" stammered the girl fearfully, backing away, against the walll. "I haven't done anything to warrant such -"
The man sliced forward with his sword just as the woman dived away. In an instant she had removed her cloak like a swathe of shadows to reveal a tall girl of no more than sixteen, with raven hair and hollowed cheeks. Delwind's jaw dropped in shock. She had removed a strung bow from her quiver with little more than a finger, but with no time to load an arrow she rammed the end into the man's stomach, hoping to wind him. He doubled up in pain, and swung his sword straight for her neck -
- and Delwind dived forwards, catching the blow on the flat of his own salvaged blade. The foreigner cursed with surprise and fury, and wrenched his own blade away from the contact.
And then Delwind's stomach clenched in fear. He had never fought with proper swords, just with cypress sticks with his brother in his own orchard. He had still carried a sword everywhere, in the hope that one day he would be a noble and respected member of the king's guard. But it had been confiscated when he had been strung up in the stocks, and he now had to use a scavenged one which he was totally unfamiliar with.
And in two swipes the foreigner had him floored. Delwind was exhausted already - the lack of energy in his body was not up to the fresh, well-fed brute force of the adult in front of him. Delwind desperately swiped and parried, but the man was no match for him.
So Delwind rolled to the side, stabbing at the man's ankles. He hissed in anger and jumped back, allowing Delwind to roll onto his feet. The girl loosed an arrow at last, slicing through two of the fingers on the foreigner's sword hand and locking them together. He yelped in shock and switched hands.
But his left hand was much slower than his right. Delwind stepped forward confidently, spinning his opponent's sword away time and again. Dodge. Attack. Parry. Block. A seemingly endless cycle of deathly dancing, which it seemed Delwind was winning -
- until his opponent spun his sword around his wrist and his fingers lost their grip. He tripped and fell, and the scimitar flicked up to his throat, snicking it slightly. Blood trickled down his neck -
- and then a sharp twang echoed through the square. The foreigner winced as Delwind heard a wet thud. The man tripped over his own feet and fell backwards, and with a sickening squelch the cobblestone street pushed the arrow through the man's heart, spurting a spray of blood ten feet into the air.
Delwind backed off, sickened, and looked up at the girl standing behind him. She was as silent as he was as blood began to drip onto the cobbles.