A Message Sent

Another rush of dirty water sloshed into his face. The old man muttered something; waved a hand in the direction of those bothering his sleep. His hair was grey and knotted, his pockmarked face was hidden behind a grey and black beard tangled up in the cords and string that held his piecemeal clothing together.

Someone shoved him forward, rolling awkwardly onto his back, grimacing as the sharp angles dug into his back. He glanced up. Council guards. Not what he needed at all right now.

“Get up, ya bastard. You’re blocking the road.”

He looked around, waving his arm out into the street as if to reveal a great mystery. Carriages continued past him up and down the King’s Road, oblivious to his presence. He looked up at them and shrugged.

The guards dragged him to his feet, but he shrugged them off, staggering away, mumbling. Arms thrown wide, always shaking, as he muttered insults and quotes from dead men. He drifted, stumbling as he walked along the gutter. He slipped. Hit the ground and rolled.

Just as a black and red carriage made its way onto the main straight.

The driver shouted warning, heaving on the reins. Horses whinnied, straining to pull away. Someone cried out.

The old man lay there. The smell of horse and sweat engulfed him. Someone kicked him, grabbing him roughly by the foot and dragging him across the stone-worked road. Another voice yelled, and his foot was dropped. Hands lifted him to his feet. Helped him walk, taking the weight. He smelled lavender. Or something flowery at least. Steps. Something soft.

And then the world moved.

He reached for something to hold onto, finding only soft padding and wood. A hand clamped onto his shoulder; soft, gentle.

“It’s ok, my friend. You’re safe here.”

The old man looked around wildly. A young man sat beside him, strong and calm, one hand on the carriage door, the other on the old man’s shoulder. He opened the door a touch, as the world slowed. “If you want to leave, you can. But you are welcome to come to the keep, for food and a warm bed.”

The old man stared for a few moments, then slowly settled back into the carriage seat. The young man smiled, pulling the door closed once more.

The carriage rolled on. He gripped his hands together, tried to stop the shaking. Stared out the crack of light between window frame and curtain. Felt the gentle touch of the young man’s hand on his shoulder. When the world stopped shaking, the young man led him out into the courtyard, where several servants greeted them. None would look at him as the young man led him past, up to the entrance of the main hall.

A single staircase wound around the room, leading up to first a landing, and then a corridor, lined with doors and trophies. The door at the end was made of heavier stuff, marked by steel and iron. The young man pushed it open, ushering his new companion inside and pulling it shut.

“Sit, please. Eat. There is plenty.”

The young man gestured to the table; a spread of meats and cheese, potatoes and bread. The old man snatched at some bread, pulled away. Stared at the young man as he stood there, smile on his face. Stared at the comfy chair. He fell into it, piling food onto a plate without thought.

He didn’t notice the young man come up behind him. Only caught a glance of the rope as it pulled tight. He yelped, eyes wide, panicked hands.

The young man leant in close. “Don’t worry,” he murmured, releasing the rope. “This is just the start.” The old man scrambled out of the chair, stumbling for the door. It wouldn’t open. He felt the young man at his back and tried to shove him away. Turned to face him. The young man’s eyes darkened a touch.

“Lesson number one,” he murmured, a touch of steel in his tone. “You don’t look at me.” He lashed out, catching the old man on the side of the head. “No one can hear you. And we are going to have some fun.”

The old man stared. The young man grinned, raising his hand. “I said -”

The old man rocked, gently, an old oak in a storm. Arms stopped shaking. Caught the young man with a blow to the throat. Twisted; slammed him into the thick door. The young man groaned. Tried to rush forward.

A kick to the groin stopped him.

The old man stared at the fallen man. Watched him struggle to his feet. A touch of fear in his eyes. The old man looked taller now.

“You belong to me now,” the young man hissed.

The old man stepped close. Grabbed him by the throat and pinned him to the door. Kissed him. Hard.

Then stabbed him with a carving knife.

“My apologies, Orben. But I’m already spoken for.”

The young man’s eyes widened. “Aramis.”

The old man smiled, as he felt the warmth of the blood run past his fingers. “Kidnapping the homeless for your own amusement? Did you really think the king would allow it?”

The young man slipped to the floor. He died with his hands wrapped tightly around the carving knife handle. Well, that will make things easier.

He removed a carefully bound letter from a bag beneath his shirt. Broke the wax seal, and tossed it onto the table, where Orben would have sat for his meal. Pulled the beard and wig off, wincing as the glue tugged at his skin. He stripped out of the makeshift clothing he wore, and removed a tightly wrapped package from around his thigh, changing into the loose pants and shirt inside.

A quick glance at the pool of blood at his contract’s feet. A sigh. Then he began searching for a way out.

By Tom Wells. © 2011