Thursday, November 5, 2015

Winter Kill - Chapter One

This is still in rough draft form but gives you an idea of what is happening to Sir Law since the end of The Templar's Cross. The first draft is completed and it's now being edited. It will be published in January.

Winter Kill

One day after it was ended and over, Sir Law realized that he and Jannet Neyn Patrik Ross had trudged through the snow on the same day and perhaps at the same hour so many miles apart.  Wind had whipped both of them raw on that harsh Scottish November. But on that day, he had never heard of her or of the modest tower near which she died.

By the time he contemplated this quirk of fate, in his mind he could see it happen. Like an unseen watcher on a nearby mountain, he saw her grasping her fur-lined cloak as she rushed out the narrow doorway. There was a dark shape behind her as she ran down the path. Her hair was honey gold and whipped in the wind, entangling snowflakes in its strands. Her fair, narrow face and long neck gave her a look of vulnerability. She bent forward as she ran into swirling gusts of white, her expression that of a woman escaping headlong from hell. 

From his vantage point, he saw her look over her shoulder and saw her mouth open to scream. She ran until she struggled through the deep snow. He saw how it was done to her. She had no chance at all. He watched her go still, unmarked , sprawled on her back, snow covering her face like a shroud. Then there was only the howl of the wind.

The job was a stringy young man from Lothian named Richerd Ancraft. He had found a good position with at the house of the bishop of Dunkeld, running errands for the stewart, Nicholl of Annand. Now Nicholl believed that the young man was stealing small items, gloves and items of that ilk, to sell. They’d even searched him for contraband but found nothing. The stewart wanted the matter resolved quietly with no embarrassment to himself in front of the bishop, Robert de Cardeny. The beefy stewart had paled at the thought, muttering that the bishop was distant cousin to the king. Hiring a thief would make him look like a fool, but Richerd had been cunning enough not to get caught.

The bishop’s man had hired him for this because, he realized with bitterness, he looked enough like the rough workers that he would not be noticed amongst them. His natural skin tone was light but tanned from years in the sun.  His light hair was a bit ragged. His limp might make him look helpless but a closer look at his deep chest and wide shoulders might disabuse of the notion. He’d left his sword in his room at the inn since no workman would carry such a weapon, but the long dirk at his belt would serve as well. He’d try not to be seen, but if he was the quarry would not take him for one of the bishop’s well-liveried servants. That was a certainty.

Law had been detailed to catch the man red-handed so the stewart could pry himself loose with the minimum of awkwardness with his employer. So Law slipped out of his own room above the inn well before dawn. He wrapped his feet in an extra layer of cloth before stomping on his boots for winter had well set in. With luck the buildings would cut off the worst of the weather. With his heavy wool doublet and thick, dark cloak, even the chill should not keep him from his task. Sunrise was turning louring clouds to waves of pewter and slate. In the pewter of early day, a light fall of snowflakes blew in the wind. The narrow Cutlog Vennel through the middle of Perth had a smell of the wood carried through it to be milled covering a stench of piss as he slogged through the murk of pre-dawn. Law reached South Street and followed it almost to Watergate, a block down from the bishop’s house. He pressed his back to the wall, clapped his hands and rubbed them together. Already his fingertips felt number, but he pulled his cloak close, his hood up, and hoped the quarry left soon on his errand to the market as he did every week in the bishop’s all-male household. Law had to detect how the man sneaked goods out of the house without being caught.

The man was so intent on watching over his shoulder as he slipped from the bishop’s house that he didn’t even notice Law watching. When the man snuck out of sight around the corner of the house into the tiny alleyway, Law straightened and strolled in that direction. He slumped a bit and dragged his feet, a workman on his reluctant way to a day’s labor. In the alley, Richerd pushed an empty barrel against the wall, hopped onto it and reached over head to untie a bag hanging from a window by a rope. He jumped down, staggered, fumbling to keep it from dropping the loot onto the wet ground.

Law ran towards the culprit, sliding his dirk sliding out of his belt. He rammed his shoulder into the man’s side and slammed him into the wall. 

The youth gave a yelp. “Let me go!”

Law leaned into him, holding him against the wall with his shoulder and put the dirk to his neck. “I’ll have that bag. Now.”

“I… I… I’m the bishop’s man.” He gulped. “He’ll have your head”

Law snorted as he loosened his weight against Richerd enough to grab the bag from his grip.
The youth whimpered. “Let me go. I’ll pay you… everything that I have. Just let me go.”

He trapped the young thief against the wall again with his weight in order to sheath his dirk.  Then he jerked the trembling youth around, twisting his arm up behind his back. “Back in you go. The steward can deal with you.”

Law shoved the scrawny lad before him to the bishop’s door and gave it a kick since his hands were occupied. A man-at-arms opened the door where the steward waited, and Law shoved the young miscreant at them. He tossed the little bag of booty to the beaming steward. “Hanging out the window from a cord high enough overhead that no one would notice, especially in the half-dark.”
The steward opened the bag and shook his head. “This is what I needed to take him before the lord sheriff."

By this time Richerd was sniveling, tears dripping down his face and his nose running with snot. “You dinnae pay me enough to take care of my mam and four my sisters. And if I’m in a dungeon they’ll starve.”

“You should have thought of their starving before you stole from your master,” the steward snapped.
He counted out coins from his purse, five merks, as though each came out of his hide and dropped them into Law’s outstretched hand. 

At the door, Law glanced once over his shoulder at the pathetic scene. To think he’d once thought himself a feared knight. Now he defeated bawling youths.

He walked through whirling gusts of snow to the inn and slammed the door closed. When Cormac looked up from where he sat plucking his harp, Law gave him a glower and sat, back against the wall, to give Wulle, the innkeeper from whom he rented a room above, a motion to bring him a cup of ale.

Wulle looked at him thoughtfully. “What is chewing your arse? Did they nae pay you?”

“I’ve had too much of this kind of thing, as much as I can stand. The lad was sleekit thief, but…” He shook his head. “He was a sniveling lad, nothing more. I dinnae ken if his story of a starving mam was true, but I’m fed up to my neck with it. Is this the only way for me to keep from starving? There must be something that is worth doing.” He wondered what it would take to wash away the stink of six months of living hand to mouth, bullying petty thieves for merchants.

“A man does what he must to keep food in his belly.”

“That cannae be right, Wulle. There is many a thing I’d starve before I did. Bad leg or no, I’m a good hand with a sword and still have a mind that works. I’d put them to good use, but this kind of work sickens me.”

Wulle sat the horn cup of ale down in front of Law. “Drink that down. It’ll cure what ails you. And go down the vennel to Mother Dickson’s--” He winked. “—for a bit of bobbing before the snow is too deep to open the doors.”

Law looked up from staring into the dark ale to see Cormac give a wry tilt to his mouth. He shrugged and upended up cup, slurping it down. “I have to find something that makes me feel like my life isn’t a waste.”

He leaned his elbows on the rough wood table and tasted the malty brew, caught in a torment he could not define. He knew from a burning in his gut that he would not survive much longer as the same man if he didn’t find some meaning in his life again.  He needed prideful work that used his skills and his abilities. Once he had that and people who meant something to him to go with it. It was a bitter draught that he had had the life most men dreamed of, the gold spurs of a knight, a friend to hold his back who was company for long, lonely nights in camp, and a strong lord to follow into battle against their enemies. But all that had drained into the dirt with their life’s blood.
Law sighed. Thinking Wulle’s advice might do some good, he ignored Cormac’s smirk and banged out into the windy night. Two doors down in Mother Dickson’s whorehouse, he pointed to one of the three girls waiting for a customer. She was tall and lithe, her red hair slicked back into a braid. Mother Dickson brought him a drink. She held out her hand for the price of both so he dropped coins into her hand.

“I’m Jonet, you bonnie lad,” the woman he’d chosen said as she wrapped an arm through his.

Law forced a smile. He had long since outgrown being a lad but would enjoy himself if it killed him. “I’m Law.” He shared his cup with her and kept telling himself he was having a good time as she giggled close to his ear. He followed her up the rickety stairs to her cubby of a room and as soon as they were inside, she turned hard into his arms. Canting her body into him, she dug her nails into his back. For a moment it was fine, until in the darkness he smelled the blood of the battlefield and his comrade bleeding out at his feet. Bile surged up into his throat. He pushed her away and clumped down the stairs. The cure for his ails was not here.

“I’m nae good enough for you?” she shouted after him.

He stomped home, sharp snow-laden wind scouring his face. When the door banged closed behind him, Cormac gave a wry twist of his mouth over his harp, but the tune he wove turned melancholy. Wulle opened his mouth to comment and then backed off at Law’s glare. Law lost count of the cups of ale he poured down his throat before he stumbled up the rickety stairs to his rented chamber.

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