For five years Aaren had spent his life under the tutelage and probing eyes of his mentor, Blane Montgomery, one of the most well respected men in the country. In that time he’d scraped through more tough times than he wanted to admit. Seeing him work alongside one of the most dangerous and high priority targets in the country sent a shiver down his spine.
He stepped forward, out and into the light, “Blane?”
At the mention of his name, the older man whirled around to face Aaren. For a moment he didn’t recognise the face, covered in the shadow of Aaren’s cowl. There was something in the tone of voice that stirred in his memory. So used to it after watching a young boy from time ago grow before his very eyes. He wasn’t surprised to find his former pupil standing barely ten meters from him, the boy was always good at finding him. That thought brought the hint of a smile to his face. It faded now into a pain stricken look as he remembered what he’d been through with Aaren. They stared at each other, a deep burn of disappointment filled Aaren.
That feeling was quickly overshadowed by the feeling of hatred as he heard the voice that was responsible for so much pain in the world.
“Well if it isn’t my old friend.” Dallin sneered as he walked towards Aaren. He took the focus of everyone in the room. “And what perfect timing too, and look,” he said pointing behind Aaren, “you’ve brought friends with you. How touching.”
The man was thin in stature, well-muscled with long dark brown coloured hair that was loosely cut to just above his shoulders. There was a haunted and ghostly look in his cheeks, pale and grey. His eyes cast a wicked look around the room, the hate and anger that filled them unsettled Aaren, more than any other man had managed to create.
Not in his wildest dreams had Aaren thought he would stumble upon his own mentor dabbling with the devil that was Dallin. He kept his sword lowered. To raise it would send a message of hostility to Dallin and he didn’t want to be too impulsive if he could help it. He considered sheathing the weapon, but as he took in the other occupants of the room, he decided he’d need the protection. “We have you surrounded and outnumbered.” He told them, “If you come quietly, we can sort something out, and there will be little trouble”. He said the words with no doubt that they would be ignored, Dallin wasn’t the sort of man to go down without a fight. Aaren felt his pulse start to race, it was going to be a tough fight for them.
Blane seemed to sense the emotion in the air, expecting the same outcome as Aaren, “Go quietly…” Blane hissed in an aside to Dallin.
For his part, the bandit continued to glare at each man that stood in front of him, assessing them. When he did speak, it was laced with anger. “We’ve fought how many times in our lives? And you think that because you’ve got someone at your back this time that I’ll come quietly?” Dallin’s question hung in the dank air of the room, there was silence for a moment. “You may think that I ruined your life, Aaren. But there was another there that night that knew you were there, or have you forgotten that?” The words cut Aaren like a whip, Eamonn could see the strain on his mentor’s face, though he knew nothing of their meaning.
“I’ll savour this moment.” Dallin announced to the room, “Now!”
The room was filled with the sounds of Dallin and his men drawing swords, likewise the sentries and Eamonn also drew weapons in response. Aaren quickly stepped forward, ducking an attack from his right and standing up again, aiming an overhead slash at Dallin. The man threw up his own sword, blocking the blow. Dallin thrust a right kick at Aaren’s ribcage and caught him. Aaren felt a rib give way slightly at the hit, he grunted as he fell to his knees, watching as Dallin prepared his own attack. Blane saw the imminent end for his friend and dashed across knocking aside Dallin in a bear tackle. Unintentionally, his headlong charge caused him to crash into the descending pommel of Dallin’s sword across the top of his head, incapacitating him.
Aaren watched the still figure on the floor in front of him, then tried to stand, grunting as he did so. He swung his gaze around the room, frantically looking for the treacherous figure of Dallin. In the sudden change of events that had taken place, he had lost sight of his nemesis.
Eamonn had drawn his sword at the sudden launch of attack that came from Dallin and his men. He flicked his wrist across in a parry and sprung to his teacher’s defense. He closed the space between himself and two of Dallin’s cronies to the room’s right, he struck out and felt the blade of his sword pierce the flesh of the man who’d attacked Aaren. He hastily withdrew his sword and threw out his sword again to block a side cut from the other man. They fenced for a few moments, behind them Eamonn could see the sentries getting the upper hand over the bandits, David and Braum surged towards a group huddled by the corner. With their backs to the wall, they had thought they were safe, now they were cramped and getting in each other’s way as the pair came at them. It took only a few moments for the bodies to be left sprawled unnaturally on the floor.
Eamonn threw out several side cuts and an overhead. The bandit was quick, his sword flashing into place just as Eamonn’s blade struck. Eamonn saw his opening, the man continued to expect Eamonn to follow through his attacks, quick as they were, he was able to see them coming. He brought his sword up in an underhand sweep, pirouetting and swapping his sword to his left hand to bring the sword through in an backhand underhand sweep. Again the parrying stroke was there, Eamonn tried again, this time pirouetting to his right side. As he had his back to the man though, Eamonn flicked his wrist, reversing the sword in his hand and brought it through in a backward thrust. The man’s sword wasn’t there in time to block it, Eamonn heard the man grunt and crumple before him, his blade lodged in the man’s side. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone reach the front door and make his way clear of the building.
Left then right and back again, Aaren’s sword was little more than a reflection in the lightly lit room, he had kept hold of his sword and seemed to have recovered a little from his injury, the sword flashed forward again and another man went down, he saw Eamonn take the first man down with a swift attack, the boy was handling the situation perfectly he thought. Aaren had the time to direct two of the other sentries to take over the situation and assist Braum and David in the cleanup duties. He looked back again for Eamonn. The boy was nowhere in sight, he glanced over as the door was closing. There was no time to lose, he rushed to the door, threw it open and sped out into the streets.
Some of the bandits had managed to slip away and he could see the patrolling guards splitting off from the main group to look for them. Others were detained by the other guards that were stationed by the building. Instinctively, Aaren ran away from them. It didn’t take him long to find confirmation. Four bodies laid faced down, their clothes matted with blood. Another was further down, their neck had been slashed, “Dallin” he cursed.
The light was fading fast now, Eamonn was pushing his way through the back ways in pursuit of Dallin. Eamonn watched as he escaped the fight through the door out into the winding streets of the town’s west. Eamonn had hoped that the bandit would have been stopped by the other sentries. Several were already fighting Dallin’s cronies. He had sensed something was wrong, he looked quickly to his left, and saw a figure falling, hands raising to his neck as he was taken by surprise from behind.
Eamonn sprinted to his aid, but the glazed eyes told him everything he needed to know, Then he noticed the blood, droplets that were leading away from the body, into the darker streets of the town. Eamonn drew his dagger and held his sword blade out in front to ward off sudden attacks. He knew that in the confines of the streets, the shorter weapon would be better suited if he needed to fight, the sword would give him distance.
The further Eamonn went, the more uncertain he became, he wasn’t familiar with this part of the town, storming through here during the day would have been a struggle, after nightfall it seemed like a nightmare to navigate. The different narrow alleyways were practically unrecognizable to him. He saw movement of a shadow to his left, and upped his pace again, he rounded the next bend and then…nothing.
The boy looked around helplessly, he’d just seen where Dallin had gone, now he’d lost the trail, he bent over looking at the ground beneath him. His tracking skills were lacking and he knew it, the ground here was bricked and many were cracked and damage. There was nothing to suggest the marks were left by Dallin as he searched. He moved forward at a jog, he found a small boot print, at his touch it showed to be fresh blood. He leaned further to examine. He stopped. Something was nearby. There was the heavy, rasping sound of a man breathing somewhere close, he turned directly into a solid fist to the cheek bone and fell to the ground, knocked out cold.
Aaren vaulted past the first block of houses, knocking over a water bucket as he did so. He had to catch up to Eamonn. Dallin was an adversary only the most skillful fighter could defeat. He doubted even his own ability in taking him alive, not that he ever really had the intention. He thought of the boy in his care, he had little more than a few months training and was now pitted against a man who had killed for years. He shuddered to think of what the outcome would be. The boy’s best chance would be to take the man by surprise with his speed before Dallin had the chance to use that short sword he was wickedly fast with.
Off to his left now he heard a faint sound of movement and the clanging of metal on brick stone. He redoubled his pace, pushing himself through the back streets of the town. He rounded the final corner, and stopped instantly, Eamonn was unconscious but alive, he could see a bruise forming on the side of his face, his weapons were nowhere in sight.
Eamonn had made one mistake Aaren didn’t, the boy had looked for tracks up close, Aaren kept his distance, the mouth of the alleyway was his best use of cover, his heart was pumping and his adrenaline was surging, he could almost sense where Dallin would be, he sheathed his sword and stepped into the open past Eamonn’s still body.
Aaren kneeled next to the track and his head came up. He stood and brushed the dirt from his knee.
“Let him go.” he said quietly. Aaren was in the center of the path now. He waited a moment or so and turned slowly around to face back the way he had come to see Dallin approaching from the darkness. The man’s hoarse laughter echoed throughout the empty back streets. Dallin was holding his sword casually at his side as he reached down, taking Eamonn by the scruff of his neck. Aaren could hear the boy as he murmured quietly through the cloud of consciousness. Dallin seemed totally at ease with the whole situation. Aaren had to regain control of it, for the boy’s sake at least.
“Let the boy go!” Aaren repeated, much more slowly this time and with a little more conviction this time.
Dallin turned a withering gaze on the other man, utter contempt filled his eyes. He despised this man that had forced him to live his life on the run for the last twelve years. Aaren saw no change or reaction, it was time that things came to a head, but he had to be the one to settle it with Dallin. “Your fight is with me, let the boy go, and we can settle this.”
Dallin smiled mirthlessly, criminal as he was, he saw advantages when one was handed to him, the boy was still groggy after being knocked out, he could cut the boy’s throat any time he wanted to.
Just like that guard who had dared to stop me he thought to himself, it would be quick and they would feel it until the moment they passed into whatever version of the afterlife they believed in. But the boy didn’t concern him, he didn’t care about the boy, he had no illusions that he couldn’t best him easily in a fair fight. Not that he’d ever go in for a fair fight. Aaren though, was a different matter. He’d take some work to break down.
There was one thing he felt that Aaren didn’t know about, he slowly worked the long knife free of its sheathe at the small of his back, he’d save that for later he promised himself.
“If that’s what you want, then that’s what we’ll do.” He said. Using the pommel of the sword, he stunned the boy. Eamonn’s body went limp as he fell into a crumpled heap on the brickwork. Dallin studied his handiwork, nodding to himself as he stepped clear of the fallen figure, ready to take on his rival.
Aaren backed away a few steps, the man was known for his devious side, he could work the smallest advantage into a giant one. His unpredictability would be his weapon, one that Aaren would need to to overcome.
Aaren was on edge, he was wise enough to keep his distance for the time being. Dallin had the look of a lion as it stalked its prey. He moved back and forth, as if waiting for the moment to strike, he smiled devilishly at Aaren as he circled confidently around the enclosed space. The eyes were the key, Aaren realised.
Dallin feigned twice before striking, his short sword thrust forward in a quick stabbing motion. Dallin pivoted to his left and struck out again in a side cut. It was an opening gambit intended to last only a few seconds, designed to seek out the other’s weaknesses as Dallin sort to gain an advantage over Aaren. Dallin darted forward in another feint and retreated, seeing Aaren flinch as he withdrew his blade once again. His lips curled in contempt, he had the edge.
Dallin stepped forward again, this time sweeping his short sword in and over Aaren’s head, pivoting as he moved. Premeditating the movements, Aaren stepped clear of the sweep and knocked aside the backward thrust he knew would be coming, giving himself the time needed to raise his sword again. He didn’t see Dallin bring the long knife the man had held concealed through from his other side.
It was almost too late for Aaren to ward it, he frantically threw he own sword to block the unexpected attack. He managed to deflect the blow but the force behind it drove the thin blade into the fleshy part of his shoulder.
Aaren cried out in pain as Dallin snarled in triumph, he could see the short sword was buried deep into the shoulder, waves of agony hit Aaren like nothing he’d felt before. Dallin savoured the moment, looking into the eyes of his hated enemy and prepared himself for the killing blow. The short sword wouldn’t deliver Aaren’s end, when he retold this story in the future, he would make it that way. Aaren let go a cry of pain as Dallin brought down his final stroke, but he met clean air as Aaren turned, trying to shield himself in an innate reaction. It was probably this movement that saved his life.
Foolishly, Dallin had maintained a hold of his short sword where it was stuck fast in Aaren’s shoulder. Aaren’s jerking movement threw Dallin off balance and painfully twisted his wrist, he tried to keep his grip on the dagger and that proved to be his downfall, he finally let go of the blade to regain control of his footing.
Dallin never saw the backward thrust coming from Aaren’s own blade, the sudden move took the madman in the back, piercing through his flesh and driving its way into the man’s heart, Dallin fell to his knees, looked around himself one last time and fell forward. Dead.
Aaren’s left shoulder and arm pulsated with pain. He tried flexing and clenching his fist, course shots of pain shot up the arm and he grimaced, but he was glad there was still some feeling there. He should have known to expect something else he told himself. His jerking movement to his left and the sudden backward thrust were instinctive acts, but they were a huge gamble. If Dallin hadn’t maintained a grip on the short sword, Aaren’s countering thrust would have hit nothing. Without the ability to use his left arm in the rest of the fight, he knew he would have lost the encounter and his life.
Aaren stumbled slowly over to retrieve his weapon from the still form of Dallin. When he felt his attack hit Dallin, he knew it would be fatal so he’d let the weapon slip from his grasp. He picked up his sword, cleaning the blade with the bandit’s shirt and sheathed it. He moved away from the body, finding a seat on a nearby verandah. He looked at the knife, still protruding from shoulder. Slowly and carefully he gained a purchase on the weapon with his right hand and carefully withdrew the knife from his injured shoulder.
He cried out in pain as he slowly removed the knife and after the final moment of agony, there was sudden release as he felt the blade come clear of the wound. The blood trickled freely now. He tried, as best he could, to wind a bandage around his shoulder, keeping the wound pressured where he was, waiting for someone to find him. For now he didn’t care who or when that person would show up, for the time being, he and his apprentice were safe, and his lifelong rival was dead.