“What? No, ma’am, you have it all wrong! Us three, we didn’t do anything! It was him,” the man said, pointing at Raulin. “He killed your husband! We came in here to stop him from…”
“I don’t care,” the sergeant said. “The countess said to arrest all of you.” He peered at the four of them in the candlelight provided by both the widowed woman and a candelabra one of his men held up high. “Besides, I do believe this tall man right here beaned my corporal and knocked him out. I think you’re all in it together.”
“May as well tell him the truth,” Raulin said, his legs beginning to tremble. “He’ll find out soon enough.”
“Find out what?” the man asked. “Nothing! We…”
The woman pushed the man’s shoulder down and spoke quietly to him. After a moment, he let out a disgusted growl. “But it’s not fair…” he began.
“It’s never fair,” she said before walking over to Raulin. It was strange to him; despite the physical discomfort and emotional duress, he felt very calm as he watched her. The candlelight washed her tanned skin and dark hair in a luster of gold, flickering as the shadows played across her face. She moved not like a high society lady, dainty and prim, but more with a stalk, predatory and confident, almost sauntering across the room.
The world was chaos. The guards were entering and taking people away. He was very close to being caught and thrown into jail. The world shouldn’t be this still for him.
She stopped just outside his reach. “Right now it looks bad for us. If you promise not to harm us and convince the guards we’re not together, I will release you.”
She closed her eyes as he spoke. “I promise,” he said, shifting his weight.
“Ttrirecc, you may move as you normally ddoo.”
Raulin stumbled back onto the ground, the feeling rushing back into his legs. He sighed in relief, but just for a moment. When he turned around, he saw that the woman was backing out of the room. One of the guards pulled the stunned and still grieving countess up and into the hallway, protecting her from any harm by using his body as a shield. She stumbled, her hand still entwined with her husband’s and smeared with his blood. She left dark prints on the light comforter as she steadied herself, moving towards the door.
There was no one for one moment and Raulin considered taking the window. He looked outside quickly and second-guessed his original plan. It was too high and unlikely he would land on any surface without breaking his legs.
Three guards filed in and rounded the bed to face Raulin. Maybe it hadn’t been that high. They each took an equally spaced position in perimeter around him with their sword points making a claw. The middle guard spoke. “Trirec, you are charged in the death of Count Varin of Carvek. Surrender and we will grant you a fair trial.”
Raulin flipped his daggers in his hands. “It’ll hardly be a fair trial,” he said. “I saw how you treated that man as you escorted him out of the room. He’ll be bruised for a few days and he didn’t even do anything.”
“The man is accused of conspiracy and accomplice to murder.”
“Why though? Seems strange you’d jump to the conclusion that they were in on it. They happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all. I’ve never met any of them before tonight, honestly. I always work alone.”
The man took a slow breath through his nose. “Surrender and we will grant you a fair trial.”
“Look, I just don’t think…” he began, then kicked the desk chair towards the two men on the right. He lunged and landed three slashes on the third, though all were cuts to his gunmetal gray quilted gambeson. He thought one might have sliced skin, the one he landed on the guard’s hip before he retreated, but the man didn’t react.
“He fights dirty, men,” the lead guard said.
“There’s no fairness in war, only survival,” Raulin replied. He faced each of his opponents in turn, keeping the outer two at least in peripheral vision.
“This is madness. It’s three against one and you have knives.”
“You’re right. Would you prefer I handicap myself with a blindfold?”
“You’re just one man!”
“Correction: I’m just one trirec.”
Raulin could tell the banter was having its intended effect on the guards’ morale by the way their eyes flicked to each other and from their wary body language. It wasn’t his primary reason for boasting, however. He was more interested in what the dynamics of the group were and if he could find any openings. He had succeeded. The two on the left, if they weren’t lovers, were good friends or brothers. The middle guard, the one with the voice, was the dominant of those two, having instinctively protected the right guard when he had thrown the chair. He had also assured the man quietly of their odds in the fight.
Which meant that the poor left guard was less likely to receive the same treatment from the other two. Raulin had done well to go after him first.
“One trirec. It doesn’t matter. We’ll fight you. Then when one of us tires, we’ll…”
Raulin interrupted what was sure to be a fascinating rhetoric on the guards’ stamina by suddenly attacking the group. He moved from man to man, landing cuts where he could. Raulin would parry and dodge, only to follow into the swing and slice as he trailed by. He managed to land a few dozen hits in less than a minute. He withdrew back to the wall, to conserve his energy.
“Any of you tired yet?” he asked, though his breathing was labored as much as theirs were.
“Sir,” the left guard said, holding up a bloody hand.
“Withdraw,” the center guard said, spacing himself to fill the void.
“Tired, or injured?” Raulin corrected.
The senior guard didn’t respond.
At two against one, the odds were almost even. In fact, Raulin felt fairly confident that he had enough advantages to win, even fighting knives against swords. Having studied fencing in his past, he knew the forms they’d be taking. Ap Kishra’s style was the compulsory method used in almost all Western military schools. It was comprehensive and expansive, but it failed to teach creativity in duels. These men would calculate that they were in a confined space with a comrade close by, fighting against a man with knives. There were only so many forms they could choose from.
It was more than that. Raulin had also taken first blood. A reminder of mortality tended to make a man a tad nervous. This was especially true against a man as seasoned as a trirec. Raulin had killed many times. He was confident in duels and fights. These boys might know the footwork, but they had hesitated when landing blows, especially that right guard.
He just needed to jab one of the men enough to fight one-on-one. And then it was only time before he had a hostage.
With this in mind, Raulin’s strategy changed to an onslaught against the easier of the two guards. He could tell that the right guard was well trained, but without having ever seen his sword bloody a man, he couldn’t give it his all. It was a major downside to living in a country that hadn’t had so much as a skirmish in several decades; hundreds of soldiers whose first kill might happen close to retirement age for them.
This kid had many years before that time. Raulin had killed his first man at fifteen. The right guard was at least five years older, perhaps even the same age as Raulin’s twenty-six, but was obviously green when it came to the grim task of spilling blood.
After just a few minutes, Raulin had both soldiers breathing deeply. They continued to fight in a rotation he could predict, could even name the forms if given a little more time. He sliced here and there, splitting their gambesons open so that he could later land cuts to their skin.
He was beginning to feel winded and went for a non-fatal but serious wound to the chest of the younger soldier. His intention was to face the center guard to parry his oncoming blow, while jabbing backhanded towards the other guard’s heart. At the last moment, he’d flatten the blade and slice across the man’s chest.
The center guard was supposed to follow into Pagsten’s Remiss after the parry, a classic move. Or perhaps he’d go into Once Around the Birch. That would have been excellent form. Instead, the guard braced both hands around the grip and crashed his sword into Raulin’s shoulder.
The trirec staggered back, unsure of what just happened. “Point to you, Astmen,” the younger soldier said.
“It’s not a game!” he snapped, stepping back for a moment to catch his breath.
Raulin tried to raise his left arm into a high protective form, but it dropped uselessly. He felt his shoulder and found a tear in his arong-miil. He rubbed his fingers together and felt slickness on his gloved fingers.
He should have ended this quicker. The guards refused to make any move, warily waiting for Raulin to strike first. He needed to regain the upper hand before more guards joined the fracas. He began counting his opponents. Two here. One disabled. One unconscious. The sergeant in charge. One with each of the other three. That was eight, a normal squad. If half were taking care of the other prisoners, then everyone was accounted for. The countess’s rooms were going to be the best exit, if he could do it swiftly. There was still one advantage he could tap into. He sheathed his knives.
“Do you surrender?” the older guard said, still breathing heavily, but holding his blade in front of him.
Raulin grabbed the inkwell and a book off of the desk next to him and threw both, one after the other. The book hit the candle that had been left on the nightstand. The inkwell hit the candelabra, knocking it to the floor. The intention had been to remove the light source and allow him the advantage of night vision. Instead, the curtain around the bed caught fire.
The guards yelled for help as they tried to extinguish the flames. Raulin shoved the younger soldier hard into the banister of the bed and ran for the next room.
The countess’s brush was still on her nightstand, the gold of the handle barely reflecting the pale light. He rounded the bed and made it to the door, remembering to draw his knives before he burst into the hallway. His hand touched the knob as he heard a sound come from the same hiding place he had used earlier. He turned his head to look as was cracked over the head with a vase.