"Putain de merde!"
Dazed, knocked to his knees by the merchant's blow, James Douglas leaned against the brick wall. He turned his head toward the River Seine. He might escape in that direction.
Blood ran down the back of James' neck. He grabbed the merchant's club as the man took another swing at him. "I'm no thief! It was an accident."
The barrel-chested man ripped his weapon loose from James' hand. "Look at what you did!" The merchant kicked one of the pears that had fallen from his stall.
James slid forward on his knees trying to get far enough to make a dash for the river. His old deerhound, MacAilpín, barked at the merchant's side. Snarling, he snapped at the man's leg.
"Estienne, get this dog off me." The merchant backed up a step.
The merchant's friend ran up and kicked James' hound to send it flying.
Oh, St. Bride, he's all I have left. James gathered his legs and flung himself at Estienne's knees. The man stumbled back. Across the market, MacAilpín whined. The merchant's friend clouted James on the side of the head, making his ears ring. The man kicked him in the belly. He landed flat on the stone cobbles. His head bounced with a thud.
A woman yelled that she needed to buy a melon for her mistress's dinner.
"Almost made me miss a customer, boy," the merchant said. He stomped a few feet away, grumbling. "They're in that basket. All fresh this morning."
James clenched his teeth. He rolled once toward the river. "MacAilpín, come," he called. A whine answered. Blood from the back of James' head plopped onto the cobbles.
"Where do you think you're going?" the merchant shouted. "Knocking down my fruit. Losing me money. You'll pay."
The man ran toward him. James gave himself a desperate shove against the ground. As he rolled, the merchant's foot connected with his face. Blood gushed from his nose. Across the square, his hound yelped.
"Mange du merde, pute," the merchant growled.
The ground disappeared from under James. He plunged into a dark cold as the Seine enveloped him. Rank water filled his nose and mouth. Now you've done it. He drifted off altogether.
# # #
When he came back, it was quiet. He didn't know where he was, except that he was lying face down in stinking mud. His hair lay in dripping, black strings across his face. He dug his fingers into the muck. In a dim way, he wondered if he should be attending his father.
He drifted off again.
No, the letter said my lord father died in a dungeon.
Nothing hurt. Shouldn't it hurt? Mayhap something had broken inside. He tried to move to find out. Dire mistake. His belly cramped and bent him like a bow. He gasped with the crushing agony of it. Holy Virgin Mary, what did he do to me?
After a long time the cramp passed, and he lay in the sunlight, too weak to do anything but pant in relief. He was too shattered to move. Thoughts drifted like blowing leaves. That he'd seen thieves die from such beatings. That mayhap he was so hurt he'd never be able to move.
He lay still in the mud as the shadows lengthened in the waning afternoon. His face felt like a pillow stuffed with lumps of coal. He managed to breathe through his mouth, his nose clogged with blood.
Eventually, he lifted his head and took heart that his body didn't cramp. He wasn't getting worse.
He knew from the practice yard that the best way to deal with being knocked flat was to take your time. The daylight had dimmed as shadows crawled toward the riverbank. A breeze chilled him and he shivered. Dark was good. It would hide him. If he moved carefully, cautiously, he could get to his feet.
He tried, dreading the pain. He moved his arms, his legs, tried to sit up. Couldn't do it. His muscles trembled. Lifting his head, he considered a huge chestnut tree a few feet from the riverbank. He crept across the ground, crawling, as far as the trunk and propped himself against it, panting.
He rested there for a while, hurting but alive. Increasingly, he thought he would stay that way. Strength returned, no longer a distant memory. He could stand if he tried. He grasped the rough trunk of the tree and pulled himself upright.
Tottery, he held onto a drooping branch. It wasn't so bad. He ached all over, but he could move.Limping through the dark streets, he kept to the shadows against the buildings, using the slimy walls to stay on his feet.
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