The half-dozen diners in the little food shop on the back street all looked up, then carefully looked away, when four men came in. The quartet all wore leather, rather than the more common wool, though the leather was well-worn and of unremarkable colour or quality; unlike the labourers, whose body language tended to minimize the space they occupied, the swagger and gestures of the newcomers suggested that all space, available or otherwise, belonged to them. They ignored the diners and claimed a table.
The colourfully-dressed man who came out from behind the counter greeted them with a nod and a smile, though there was a cautious edge to it. “How may we serve you?”
“To start with, a pitcher of beer,” said one, whose skin was pale and whose hair had barely-visible darker stripes in the brown-blonde, and who looked like the youngest of the group. “And a bowl of stew each.” A distinct accent betrayed him as not local, though not so much so that those listening couldn’t understand him. A few might have thought it sounded vaguely familiar, like they’d heard it somewhere before.
“Would rather be served by that pretty girl you’ve got hiding back there,” suggested one of the others, his mostly bald head fringed by a stubbled shaved ring of greying hair, all exposed skin tanned dark and leathery. A thick small-diameter gold ring pierced one ear, high on the arch.
“I’m sorry, my lords, my wife is shy of speaking to others. I’d never hear the end of it if I asked her to do so. I’ll be back in a moment.”
The largely bald man’s attention stayed on the amber-veiled woman who was tending to the kitchen area behind the counter; he nudged his neighbour, a younger man with three thin precisely symmetrical scars slanting down each cheek, and muttered something indistinct that made both snicker.
“You’d have less trouble with the girls over on Joy Street,” said the fourth, an older man with iron-grey hair drawn back in a tail, lean hard muscle visible under the bare and much-scarred skin of his arms. He said it in an undertone, though, and the tone suggested that he neither expected to be heeded nor felt much about it either way.
None of the other three paid any attention; the one with the scarred cheeks traded glances and grins with the one with striped hair.
Their host returned to set a pitcher and four cups on the table, made a brief trip back to the counter and brought over a tray with four bowls of stew and a basket with four rounds of bread. “Enjoy. If there’s anything else you’d like, you need only tell me.”
“We will,” muttered the one with scarred cheeks.
The one with the striped hair gave their host a curt nod of acknowledgement.
The other customers kept an uneasy eye on that table, but began to relax a little when all remained peaceful. More trickled in as the current ones trickled out, and though a couple of newcomers immediately retreated, others stayed.
Their host returned to gather the empty bowls and basket.
“That was very good,” the one with striped hair said lazily. “Some of the best food we have ever had around here. We would like to compliment the cook personally.”
Their host hesitated. “As I said, she’s very shy.”
“We won’t make her talk.” The balding one got up from the table and headed for the counter. “Hey, pretty girl. C’mere and let me say thank you for the food.”
She looked up, first at him, then at her husband, uneasily, but left the fire and its two cauldrons to approach the counter from the opposite side.
The balding man seized her braceleted wrist and dragged her forcibly right up against the waist-high wooden counter. She cried out, in pain or shock or both, and tried to twist away, but he captured her other wrist as well, holding her relentlessly, his grin broadening the more she struggled.
Their host crossed the room in three long strides, but just short of being in reach of the man who held his wife, the younger man with the scarred cheeks and the iron-haired man caught up with him. Each grabbed hold of one arm, and between them, they dragged him back. The strength behind his resistance visibly caught them by surprise, and they nearly lost him, but they wrestled him up against the wall.
The woman jerked desperately at the hands trapping her wrists, took a deep breath, but released it with only a small whimper when her captor said, “You scream, he dies.”
The scarred man pressed the knife from their host’s own belt against his throat to keep him there, laughing at their host’s vehement demands for them to let go of him and release his wife. “And what exactly do you intend to do if we don’t? Maybe he’s going to hurt us, Bihar! Oh, whatever shall we do?”
“Get on with it, Eleder, if you’re going to,” the iron-haired man, Bihar, said boredly. “And you, shut it, before I find something to gag you with. Your own privates would work well. If you think I’m joking, try me.”
Their host eyed him uncertainly for a moment, then fell silent, but his expression suggested a similar level of pain regardless.
“Madoc, give me a hand here,” balding Eleder commanded.
Madoc shrugged and left their table. “I told you about her,” he pointed out, on his way across the room. “I should get her first.”
Eleder shot him a dark look, then looked past him at the frightened bystanders. “All of you stay right where you are. First one who touches that door gets a throwing knife in the throat. We don’t need anyone inviting the damned Watch to interrupt the party. Madoc…” He considered his subordinate, who stopped just out of reach and met his gaze steadily. After a long moment, Eleder’s eyes dropped, and he laughed harshly. “You don’t show much interest most of the time. Since you decided to share instead of just keeping her to yourself, sure, go ahead.”
Madoc’s grin showed his teeth as he circled around behind the counter, unbuckling his belt. “This is something I have been thinking about for weeks.”
“Should’ve said something before then,” Bihar said mildly. “Although I suppose it’s a nice change to have someone around who thinks of something besides his permanent boner.”
“Go bugger a sheep, Bihar,” Eleder snarled.
The woman whimpered again, writhing frantically, as Madoc and Eleder forced her onto her back and Madoc flipped her skirts out of the way; though she tried visibly to choke back tears, after a couple of small sounds that might have been pain, she began to cry, sobs broken by what sounded like pleas but were in no language spoken in Galimont. Her copper tiara struck the floor and rattled to a stop as Madoc yanked her veil loose and twisted it into a thick rope to gag her, holding it across her face with both hands and his weight.
The sound of the door opening drew the attention of everyone in the room, with the exception of Madoc and the woman, whose attention was entirely on each other.
Burly corporal Joseb spat a few words that were in common use only in a very few areas of the city and grabbed the truncheon from his belt as he came through the door; his dark-skinned partner Igon was a step behind. Ander, while reaching for his own truncheon, ordered a young blonde man who couldn’t have been out of his teens, in a raspberry Watch tunic but a plain brown cape over it, to run back and tell Tyrel to hurry.
Eleder’s warning to Madoc came a fraction too late: Joseb’s blow to the back of his skull left him conscious, but barely, and he staggered and fell heavily across his sobbing victim. Eleder released her hands and spread his own, all innocence but with a smirk lurking around the corners of eyes and mouth.
Joseb grabbed Madoc by the collar and yanked him off the woman, who immediately scrambled away from the counter and fled to her husband—now free, thanks to Ander and Igon, who each had one of his captors pinned on the floor. He wrapped both arms around her, stroking her uncovered dark hair as she buried her tears in his shoulder. Each guard carried restraints of braided leather; Bihar tolerated Ander binding his hands against his back with an air of amused tolerance, while the man with the scarred face struggled and gave Igon a harder time of it.
Which was the scene Tyrel saw when he arrived, not only with the young recruit but with Mirren as well.
(chapter continued next post!)