The thud of the door exploding open wakes me from my slumber but my eyes remain closed. The lightness behind my lids suggests that dawn has arrived. I hear the tramp of several men entering the room, their voices incomprehensible as I struggle to become alert. My eyes are not alone; my entire body refuses to follow my simplest instructions to move. Rough hands grab my body and flip me onto my back. I feel the prick of every strand of straw poking through the thin wool covering of the mattress. I also feel the cold of naked steel pressed against my neck.
"Get up you drunken maggot." The voice is from the foot of the bed, not the owner of the weapon. It may be time to open my eyes.
I am greeted by several men in armor encircling my bed, thankfully blocking most of the light coming through the lone window. It still takes several moments of blinking before I can make out any details.
"Sit up, fool. The captain of the guards wants to talk to you." The speaker is also in armor, a bearded man of middle years. He wears chain mail that shows wear but sits on him comfortably. The others are noticeably younger, their armor simple and cheap. They all wear the same crest, an eagle on a blue field. That tugs at my memory for some reason.
"I cannot rise with a sword at my throat," I point out.
The blade is removed and I am yanked up to sit against the wall. In so doing the single sheet that covers me slides away and we all realize that I am naked underneath. Their leader is as unconcerned with this fact as I am, but I notice a couple of the younger guards look away in embarrassment. Just how inexperienced are these lads?
"Get dressed, you're coming with us." The leader throws me my britches.
"What's this all about?" I ask. I slide into my trousers as gracefully as one can on a bed surrounded my soldiers. I look for a shirt and see that it's under the foot of one of the men. I look pointedly at it and then at the man. He looks to his feet and steps back. I lean forward to retrieve it and nearly fall on my face. Luckily, strong hands are there to grab me and shove me back against the wall.
"Seeing the state you're in, I'm not surprised you don't remember." The bearded man seems more amused than angry now. "But you pissed off the wrong person last night, and now you'll pay for it."
That doesn't really answer my question, but it's all I'm going to get. I struggle into the shirt and the hands once again take hold and lift me bodily to my feet. They maintain their hold as everyone files out of my tiny room and through the inn, the hallway not large enough for even two men to walk abreast so one man before and one man behind struggle to hold me up and push me along. I let them struggle - it's easier than doing the work myself.
We enter the street and sunlight hits me like a blow. I try to shield my eyes but the hands holding me don't allow it. My two helpers flank me and the others surround us as we march through the town. Our little procession draws curious looks, but no excitement. I take it as a good sign; if a public trial or hanging was expected there would be more anticipation. At least the matter will likely be a private one. Though dungeons are rather private, so I'm not completely at ease.
We continue through the castle's main gate, then turn to follow the wall on the inside. We pass the barracks and end at the practice yard. A dozen more youths in armor are drilling under the eyes of an old man. Once again, their armor is simple and new while his is old and well used. My escort stops at the side and apparently we await the old man. After a few minutes of him giving very basic fighting advice he leaves his trainees to drill and walks over to us.
"Thanks, Gardener. Could you let Lord Arinal know that we have his man." The old man talks to the middle aged one, who nods at the order and walks off. The rest of my companions, including the two who still hold me, stay in place.
"And what sorry excuse for a man do we have here?" The captain looks me over with a critical eye. "You don't look capable of causing so much trouble. I should just throw you in a cell and forget about it all."
"A wise decision, sir," I address him respectfully. "I can get some more rest and your men here can continue their much needed practice. We'll all be the better for it."
He almost smiles. "Yes, well, neither of us gets to make that choice. You angered Lord Arinal. He may be a young piss-ant, but he's still a lord. And he wants some satisfaction."
"You wouldn't be so kind as to tell me exactly how I angered the lord? The sincerity of my apology will be greatly facilitated by a familiarity with the facts."
He actually laughs out loud this time. "You don't even remember." He shakes his head. "I wouldn't mention that to Arinal. He'll probably be more upset that you don't remember him than he is that you embarrassed him."
"Ah, I embarrassed the poor boy." I lick my lips and spit. Some wine would make speaking a much more pleasant exercise, but I don't expect I'll be offered any. "I find that most people embarrass themselves. I just have the bad luck to be nearby when it happens."
"Bad luck was not your problem last night. Perhaps a little too much good luck. First at the cards, and then in the fight. You took out a room of trained swordsmen, including two of my men, with nary a scratch to show for it." I notice the humor leaves the captain's eyes as he considers his own words. "And while too drunk to remember it. Curious."
"Good luck, bad luck. It's all the same in the end." I'd prefer it if he didn't think too hard about me. "I am fortune's pawn."
"Is this the man, Captain?" A new voice rises from behind me. I turn my head but that only makes the world spin. The voice is strong and confident, and more than a little angry.
"You tell me, my lord," the captain responds. "My men found him at a hostelry this morning. He fits your description and does not deny anything." I'm hurt by his suggestion of my guilt, but can't rightly argue against its veracity.
Lord Arinal (I assume) walks to stand by the captain in front of me. The lord is a young man but not a small one. He stands a handwidth taller than I with a frame more suited to a woodsman than an aristocrat. He has a black eye and swollen lip. He gives me the same perusal that everyone has this morning. I study him in turn. He's wearing fine leather leggings and a black silk shirt open to his navel. He has an elaborate rapier strapped to his hip. I notice two more youths dressed and armed similarly off to the side.
"Yes, that's him. I can't remember what name he gave me, but I'm sure it's false." He takes a step forward to speak down to me. "You thought you could cheat us at the table and then raise your fists to nobility? No one insults an Arinal and gets away with it."
I look up at him with all the sincerity I can muster. "I am truly sorry, my lord. I can only say that drink got the better of me. I am a poor and unworthy soul. You can have all my winnings and I will depart and trouble this land no more."
"You think I care about the gold?" he responds. "I have more money than you can possibly imagine." Of course he does. "It's my honor you have insulted, and for that I will have justice." Of course he will.
"What would you like us to do with him, my lord?" The captain asks. "Shall we lock him up for a month in the jail?"
Arinal doesn't even turn to look at the Captain when he answers; he stares straight into my eyes. "The coward attacked us from behind. Jail alone is too good for him. I want to see him whipped first. Then throw him in your darkest cell and forget about him." He smiles at me.
I resist the urge to smile back. I will just take my beating and my incarceration and be on my way. Anything else will just make it worse.
"Can we do the whipping here, my lord?" The captain asks. "Or do you want it in the square." I can hear the weariness in his voice. "If we do it in the square, we'll need to announce his crimes. That he beat up several nobles in a gaming room."
The smile leaves Arinal's face. "No, a public announcement is not necessary. We can do this right here."
"Very well," the captain says. "Remove his shirt and tie him to the dummy," he orders the men.
I am handled more roughly this time. They rip my shirt over my head and discard it on the ground. They drag me to a practice dummy, a simple cross of wood dressed in armor to resemble a man. They push me against the cross and tie my hands on the other side. I do not struggle or protest. From the silence that has fallen over the practice yard, everyone is watching.
"How many lashes, my lord?" The captain's voice is right behind me. So he's to carry out the order himself.
"Give him twenty." I can hear the smile in Arinal's voice.
"Twenty lashes and the dungeon are likely to kill him, my lord." The captain speaks on my behalf. "Ten would be plenty."
There's a long pause before the answer comes. "Oh, all right. Ten then."
There's another pause before the crack of the whip that's followed by a lightning strike of pain. I do not cry out at the blow. I have endured far worse than this. Crack and then pain. The blows continue to land, each in a new spot. The captain has done this before and he's taking it easy on me. He's spreading the blows to save my skin. And while the sting is excruciating, I know it could be worse. I maintain my silence.
"Harder, Captain," Arinal says. "I want to hear him scream." Of course he does.
The next hit is harder and I do let out a moan. I do the same on the final three. Then there is again silence, only my whimpers fill the yard. Hopefully the show was enough for the arrogant bastard.
"You two, cut him down and take him to the cells," the captain directs his men. "The rest of you get back to practice. Lord knows you need it."
I feel the hands on me again, one soldier holding me up the as the other cuts the ropes. My back is on fire and I can feel the blood dripping down to my legs. They each take an arm and turn me towards the exit. But Lord Arinal is there blocking the way, with his hangers on behind him. He grabs my chin and turns my head up to look at him as the soldiers hold me locked in place.
"Enjoy your time in the pit, peasant. Think of this pain the next time you try to swindle the nobility."
"Yes, my lord," I answer him squarely. He slaps me with the back of his hand, bringing tears to my eyes.
"Don't dare to address me, scum." He turns to look at his henchmen who laugh along with him. "He's crying now." He turns back to me, still laughing. "You're pathetic. Crying like you did last night over your wife and daughter. See how much sympathy you get in the dungeon for your sad tale."
My wife and daughter. It must have been a bad night if I remembered them. And now this fool taunts me with that memory. This I will not abide.
With a quick flick of my foot I take out the knee of the man holding my right arm. As he buckles I pull my arm free and elbow him in the face. The man on my left has retained his grip but I just use that as leverage for a punch to his face. I feel bone break and his body go limp. I grab the hilt of his sword and pull it free as he falls.
Lord Arinal has only managed to take a slight step back and the point of my sword is at his neck before he can do more.
"I do not cheat at cards," I say. "Nor do I attack from behind. Draw your weapon and test me again."
I withdraw my blade enough to allow the young lord to act. He remains frozen but some of the training guards do not. A pair rush in with their weapons at the ready. The first has his sword over his head like a simple cudgel. I swipe his blow aside and slam the side of his head with my hilt. He drops instantly. The second man stabs at me with no more caution. I spin around the blade hit his temple with the side of my palm. He drops next to the first.
I turn back to point at Arinal. "Draw your blade," I say flatly. He only gets his hand to his hilt before more soldiers rush me. I turn to take them on, sidestepping their simple attacks and countering with my fists and the flat of my blade. I don't need the additional trouble that deaths would cause me. By the time I finish I see that Arinal has finally drawn his weapon, as have his two friends behind him. The captain of the guards also has his sword out, but strangely has not interfered.
I close with Arinal. "Defend yourself." It take two moves to slap his sword aside and once again have my blade at his throat.
"Again." I step back and let him bring his guard up before attacking. He snaps out of his lethargy and puts up a more spirited defense. It takes five moves this time. "Again." I get the advantage on him and each time let him regain his guard. His associates simply turn and run.
After several repetitions Arinal gets angry and attacks with more gusto. He actually has some skill and training with the sword, but he is nothing compared to me. After several more rounds his anger turns to fear.
As Arinal tires his frustration leads to weaker and clumsier attacks. More guards arrive and surround us. But the captain keeps them at bay this time. I see tears on Arinal's cheeks and decide to end it. I throw down my sword and open my arms. He has renewed hope and charges me once more. I easily evade his swings and capture his wrist, twisting his arm back around until I have his own blade pressed at his neck and my face next to his.
"I will let you live this time," I whisper in his ear. "But if you ever speak of my wife or daughter again I will kill you and everyone you hold dear. Do not doubt me in this." I press the blade just enough to create a line of crimson. "Nod if you understand." He nods slightly, but it's still enough to increase the flow from his wound.
"Ahem." The captain clears his throat loudly. "You might want to let the good Lord go now."
There is now a pair of crossbowmen next to the captain with their weapons trained on me. Though the captain doesn't appear too upset. In fact, he's smiling.
"But if I let my friend go," I say, "what's to stop you from turning me into a pincushion?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all."
"Then perhaps I should just have Lord Arinal escort me out of the castle and be on my way."
"You could do that." He waves a hand to have the crossbows lowered. "But how about you stick around and we talk about a job. That's the finest swordplay I have ever seen and I'm in need of a competent training master."
I look around at the wounded men strewn about the yard. "Yes. Yes you are." I study Arinal who's sweating like a pig and then glance at the captain. I release the lord and his sword, giving him a push to separate us. I slowly walk over to stand in front of the captain. "Let's talk about wages."