“I’ll gut ya. Ya bastard.” The chapped lips of the big man snapped shut. The words were harsh and forceful. Born of rage. The smaller man’s short blade wobbled as he pointed it at his former card-playing companion.
“You’ve got it all wrong, mate. I never cheated you. Never.”
The bigger man circled the remains of the card table. Forcing the smaller man backwards, into the inn where the other patrons gathered in relative safety, beside the long stout oak bar. Moments ago, the common room has been filled with cheery banter. They had dashed from their seats when the simple card game went sour. The less agile, clustered along the front, were far to close to the action for the comfort of these small farmers and labourers.
“I’ll stick that where the sun don’t shine, little man.” growled the aggressor. His hands where held out wide. One with fingers hooked like claws. The other with filled a long blade. Its keen edge glistened. The defender could see tattoos on the muscular forearms of his nemesis. Exposed by the pushed-up sleeves of his faded shirt, the story those tattoos told, filled the slender man with dread. A Griffon, frozen mid roar, on one and on the other a tattooed number. The slow circling stopped. The ex-soldier was firmly in control of the situation, with the only exit behind him, and his enemy shaking with fear in front of him. The would-have-been cardshark, could feel the fear continuing to rise. His bladder threatened to ruin him, and his arms had begun to cramp.
It’s all or nothing, he thought. This legionnaire is going to break me in half. I’ve got to do something. He realised that appeals to the man’s good nature where worthless. He was also devoid of hope that the locals would turn on one their own. The little man’s instinct for self-preservation drove his mind towards a solution. Yet he could see none. Blissfully unaware of any commotion, the inn-keepers wife came through a side door. All eyes briefly fell towards the movement as the door swung wide open. Beyond, through the kitchen, another open door could be seen leading to the rough cobbles of a dark back alley. As if he sensed the little man’s moment of flight was a spilt second away, the big soldier charged him. Gone were the threats and words. In an instant, the few remaining feet of freedom were closed down. The burly man grabbed hold. Pouncing on him, like a river cat on an eel.
The little man staggered under the force and sank to one knee. The bigger man squeezed, his tenons standing out like cords. He crushed his foe with his large scarred hands. The little man let the knife drop. He nearly vomited with the fear. It flooded every ounce of his body, from skin to marrow. Raw fear urged a final response. His body jolted. He struggled and trashed, but his efforts were in vain. The bigger man just continued to grip, and then twist his wrists. A loud sickening snap was heard. The card player roared in agony. The pain was intense and stunning.
“Please, mercy, please!” he pleaded as the old soldier let him slump to the floor, and then calmly shoved him over with his mud cover boot.
“Little thieving bastard!” the figure looming over him in his agony spat. The little man could smell ale, sweat, sawdust and dung from the victor, as he reached over his stricken form to pick up the fallen knife. He then tugged at lining of the prostrate card players waist band. He removed a card secreted there early in the game. He held it aloft. “Little cheating thieving bastard. I recon’ this runt, pulled a knife and got stabbed in the struggle.”
Some of the inn patrons turned their backs, hoping that what they didn’t see wouldn’t bother them. Others held their gaze. None moved to aid the sobbing figure on the floor. The Innkeeper, none too gently, pushed his lady wife back out the door she had come from, and shouted at the serving girls in the kitchen to stay inside till he “bloody well said so.”
“You shouldn’t have an accident in here Martin,” the fat man said firmly, “The Sheriff will thumbscrew the bloody lot of us if a corpse appears in town.”
“Shut up, Ben. This mans a thief, and a coward. I’ll not be robbed and mocked by this whoreson. Not in my own tavern”
“It’s not your tavern, it my tavern and you’ll never gets a drink again after the law has turned the old place upside down.’
The crying pity on the cold flagstone floor had a sense that the air has suddenly shifted, and some slight favour of the gambling god had returned to him. He wasn’t the brightest young man alive, but he felt that silence or at least just moaning were the best options for survival now. The moment of intense anger had past, and the old soldier’s ire was abating. The red mist was clearing and the veins in his neck were no longer throbbing. The tattooed man’s grip lessened on the two knives. He sheathed his own. Then he started to turn away towards the circled patrons and spilled beer. Without warning, and without mercy, he spun and lashed his boot into the groin of the fallen cheat. The pain was completely over-whelming. The prostrate man heard himself cry out in agony, before a welcome darkness flooded in.
The man awoke in much the same manner as when he had passed out. In pain and with a scream. As he was dragged back into consciousness, he became aware that intensely cold water that had been bucketed over him. It ran out of his light brown hair, down the emerging stubble on his chin and joined the sopping rags that were the remains of his only linen shirt.
“Wake up,” the bucket thrower commanded “The sheriff will be here soon.”
“Where am I?”
“Where do you think? You’re only the finest free lodgings that are to be found this side of the Red River. Or the prison cells of Buckford as they are commonly known.” the guard mocked.
“Are they to your liking?” his humourless pockmarked face wore a hard mouth, and scorn. “Now I’ve a few questions for you if you have the time today to answer them?”
This guard, the little man thought, had scant contact with anyone else, let alone with prisoners. So, he was taking great pleasure in his jibes. No doubt he’d tell his mates, if the humourless shit had any, later in the tavern. Tales of how he had the “cheating knife pulling cove quaking in his piss filled boots”.
“Name!” the jailer snapped.
“Lucas Miller.” the slight man spoke quietly from the heap of sodden straw where he lay.
“I am just come to Buckford, from Reedbywater”
“Well, I’ve gotta larf, a tradesman’s son, who ain’t got no more than forty miles from home and won’t see his nineteenth birthday. Your family will be most proud.” The jailer let out a long low whistle, “What a dolt you must truly be!” His enquiry finished, he spat through the black iron bars, where the foul substance connected perfectly with Lucas’s face. Laughing away to himself, he rose and left with the only candle through a stout door. When it was locked behind him Lucas was alone.
Lucas felt cold and shamed. So very pained from his arm and humiliated. He wiped away the spittle from its journey down his scratched face. He was utterly alone in the fading light of the prison cell. He thought about his family at home as he stared out the small barred window, set high in the rough stone wall. Faint starlight could be seen emerging in the clearing evenfall sky. Lucas put his good arm over his face and leaning against the wall gently began to weep. Fear, pain and self-loathing washed through him. He felt hopeless and helpless. Lucas returned to the empty embrace of sleep. It was the slam of the outer cell doors that woke Lucas at some point later in the total dark of his cell. He heard voices outside.
“Bloody oaf! Can’t you even open doors correctly? No wonder this bloody place is such a mess! Right, where is this grinders whelp then?”
He took a little pleasure at the minor chastisement of his jailer outside, delivered by a voice than oozed authority in all things. It didn’t last long. His own fear was too deep.
“Last on the left, Sir” grovelled the jailer. The footsteps stopped outside his cell. Lucas had heard two types; the soft plod of the jailer in cheap boots, and the others clicked and clacked, as the metal capped heels of riding boots struck flagstones. “On your feet!” roared the jailer, as he came through the door, puffing his chest out, putting on a show for his betters, “All rise in the presence of the Sheriff.”
Lucas stood up, slowly. He found himself surveying the sheriff from the feet up as he rose unsteadily from the damp straw. The boots where knee high, deep black. They had been highly polished; they were now marred by stirrups and the road dirt had dulled the sheen. The boots sheathed legs covered in black trousers, which help to mask the stains from saddle. The sheriff wore a simple steel chest plate over a dark doublet, without ornament or sigil, other than the star of his office. It was tooled deeply into the dark metal of the upper left breast and highlighted with a golden enamel. A short woollen riding cloak with a stiff neck collar covered his shoulders. The common grey of all the law officers in the Kingdom. Above the collar Lucas finally laid eyes on the Sheriff’s face.
He tried not to react in any outward fashion, but the sheriffs face was a startling sight. A legacy of some terrible assault, maybe on a battlefield long ago and maybe far away. There was no eye present in the left orbit, a flap of skin had been formed over the remnants of the left cheek and stump of a nose. The remaining items did not make for pleasant viewing either, as the single eye was hard and unflinching in its gaze. The mouth seemed to curl in a sneer against the force of the tightened flesh of his scars.
“You will respond quicker to my questions, than you did when bidden to rise! Is that understood?”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“You will address me as Sir, Your Honour or Sheriff.” he snarled, “I was elected by the people to this position. I am a thief-taker and a custodian of the law, not someone halfwit born unto a legacy of power and position.”
“You can have your day before the Magistrate within a month. She will hang you. It carries a decent fee for the hangman, and she enjoys it more in her later years. You could however spare the town of Bucksford, the people of Bucksford and I, a lot of trouble of building a scaffold and digging your grave, if, you simply go out upon the morrow before the townfolks, and at the steps to the public pulpit in the square, confess your crime to all and sundry.” He spat out the words, leaving little room between them. “You will then receive the minimum sentence possible for your foolish and most haphazard attempts at cheating and then attempt to murder, a proud veteran of His Majesty’s Legions, namely one Martin Tanner, Master Sergeant.”
Lucas felt stunned, a reprieve was the last thing he had expected from this grim and imposing figure. His thoughts of deliverance didn’t last long.
“My Lieutenant here, Mr. Boater, will explain your confession, which you will affirm aloud, and the punishment you will gratefully accept for your gross act of criminality. Frankly, if stupidity itself was a crime, it would also go on the list. Listen carefully, as he will not be repeating himself. Mr. Boater if you will please.”
The other figure who had been standing quietly beside the open door, came forward to the bars. He was dressed in a identical fashion as the Sheriff. Yet, with his tall slender frame and his flowing blonde locks, he could not have physically appeared more different. A satchel hung at his waist. He drew from it a sheet of paper and held it up in the candlelight, “This is a legal document, can you read?”
“Written in the high tongue, do you speak the old language?”
“I didn’t think so, then I shall translate for you into the common speech. ‘I, Lucas Miller, hereby confess my crimes, that of theft by cheating at gaming, and attempted murder by assault with a deadly weapon. I hereby publicly accept my just reward, given unto me by the righteously elected Sheriff of the district of Buckford, the right honourable Mr. Antony Barber. As punishment for these heinous acts, I will be transported from this place of confession to the nearest Legion recruitment station. Where within those ranks, I shall render twenty-five years’ service in protection of the people whose peace I have befouled. Only on the expiry of that service may I be forgiven for my most grievous crimes and only then can the stain on my character be expunged. So I do swear, Lucas Miller, aged 18 years of Reedbywater.”
Lucas went to speak but the Sheriff cut him off him immediately, wagging a gloved finger “Ah, ah! Say nothing. The law states that I must return in one hour to receive your answer.”
As quickly as they had arrived, the small party of three turned and left. Lucas don’t know which way to look or what to do. He wanted to get sick as the words took hold in his mind. The Legion. The bloody bastard Legion. One smart arse old soldier, from whom he hadn’t gotten more than two coins. On the first day he had ever tried to play cards for real money, and use that stupid bloody card slipping trick his friends had showed him. A death sentence would have been quicker and less painful all round. He was too bloody small for the Legion. He wasn’t stupid enough to ever volunteer but now he was being sent. The penal battalions of Legion would break the weak. The scum that filled their ranks were herded in the breech first. Grist for the mill before the more valuable, better trained, and better equipped volunteers. Lucas knew little enough about the Legion, but he knew that much and that much was enough. For the second time in the cell Lucas sat and cried until he didn’t have any tears left. He thought on his life, on the waste of it, as his mother had oft professed it to be. A youth spent in fun. Chasing girls, fishing in the river, poaching rabbits, playing cards, and ditching his lessons in the schoolhouse in favour of ball games in the street.
Now, he would face the barracks and the training yard, where the only balls kicked would be his own.