Heir to the Shadows

Nick is undescribable. His life is a whirlwind of bad luck, secrets and distrust. Cursed at an early age, Nick's life was never going to be easy. Some will stop at nothing to prevent him from revealing their secrets.


2. Punishment Day


Letha tugged her modest, heavy cloak around her shoulders tighter as she hurried through the crowded streets.  She kept her head ducked and her face hidden for she feared the looks men gave her when they saw her.  It wasn't as if she was beautiful or sexy but an unaccompanied lady was fair-game.  Letha's mother always used to say that if they had had the money, she would have sent Letha away from the slums of Arcane to a school for ladies so Letha could meet a hedge knight, or something of the sort, and set up in style.


"Excuse me, sir, I apologise," squeaked Letha, terrified.


The heavily built man Letha had just bumped into, turned to face her in surprise.  His clothes were covered in dust from the road and Letha's eyes smarted at the stench of alcohol that clung to the bull-like man.  His hearty laugh added to the clamity of the mid-afternoon market rush. 


"That's alright, little bird.  Come to see the festivities?" chuckled the man, clutching his stomach at his own joke. 


Letha was frozen with terror.  She couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't think.  She simply stared in shock at the man before her.  He tugged his beard dis-conncertingly, slightly embarressed by her starring.  He cleared his throat, waking Letha from her stupour.  She turned and stumbled away from the man, fleeing into the safty of the shifting crowd.  She allowed herself to drift and be carried by the current, not caring where she went as long as it was away from the frightening man.


With a start, Letha realised she had somehow ended up in the centre of town and with a bigger start, she realised it was Punishment Day.  In the very centre of the fray, a young boy of, maybe, ten years was tied to a lashing post with his red bleeding back exposed to the crowd's jeering.  To the side, three men and a woman were being savagely and cruely humiliated in the stocks.  The stench of rotten food and dung prevailed the air.


What truely terrified Letha the most, however, was the main event.  A worn stone stump stood on a higher platform, above the other tortures.  This act was to be bloody and was the worst of all by far.  A line of more than fifteen men, women and children lined the red-brick wall of townhall.  All of them were crying but only some pulled at their iron chains, still clinging to the hope they could escape. 


On one side of the stump stood a tall, plump, intimindating figure dressed all in black, complete even with a black hood to cover his face with two slits for his eyes and one for his mouth.  In his hand he held a bloody dripping butcher's knife.  On the other side was a stoked fire with a number of heating pokers protruding form its coals.


The smell of burning flesh inviltrated Letha's nose and she was filled with a foreboding sense of dread as the next man stepped up to the centre of the stage.  The man rolled up his right sleeve and placed his freckled forearm on the stone stump.  The crowd leaned forward with anticipation, cheering on the man who was waving the bloodied knife.  Letha's head spun and she could feel herself swaying.  Her mouth felt like it was full of sawdust and like her heart had stopped completely. 


Suddenly someone from behind spun Letha around and flung their arms around her.  Letha sank gratefully into the stranger's chest but not seeing did not prevent her from hearing the whistle of the knife flying through the air, the thwack of the knife hitting bone, the shattering screams of the man, nor the sizzle and burning smell of the man's skin as they sealed his wound.  Quickly the crowd's cheering drowned the cries of the man as he was dragged away but in Letha's head she could still hear his screams echoeing around in her head. 


Just as suddenly before the person behind her, as if sensing it rising in her, swung Letha around.  He shoved her forward throught the crowd to the nearest gutter while she kept her hand clapped over her mouth.  Her stomach flip-flopped, its contents churning sickeningly.  With a wretched sound, her body lurched forward convolsively and she vomited into the storm drain.  Hands held back her hair and used their body to give her some privacy. 


Finally, her vomiting subsided into quiet sobs.  Letha had only ever seen Punishment Day once and that had been when she had been six.  Her body felt cold and detached from her unfunctioning mind. Letha sucked in rapid breaths as she tried to calm her self down. 


Letha felt someone take hold of her shoulders and help her shuffle away from the sounds of the continuing horrors down the leftmost street.  Finally when they had reached a safe-distance, Letha turned and found herself facing a kind-looking man with soft blue eyes.  He reached up slowly, exaggerating that his movements to convey his intentions were not to hurt her.  He wiped around her mouth with a piece of cloth and gave her some dried mint leaves to settle her stomach but he could do nothing to calm the inner turmoil in her mind.  Although his peaceful steady eyes did help her to some degree. 


He placed his hands on either side of her face and studied her expression with such attention to detail that it centred Letha.  As she pulled away, she saw a flash of something in his eyes but it was gone just as quick as it had appeared.  He let go of her and offered her his arm.


"May I escort you back to your home?" he asked tentatively. 


Letha took an innvolentary step back.  Her mind suddenly jump-starting.  Who was this man and why was he helping her?  Not out of the goodness of his heart, that was for sure.  He was extremely hansome which, in Letha's opinion, usually entailed arrogance and superiority. 


Unsure of what to do, Letha accepted his arm and said nothing.  They stood there for a minute or two while the man watched Letha expectingly.  She stared back at him, confused.  What was he waiting for?  She shook her head slightly and let her expression convey her confusion.


"Where do you live?" he asked with exaggerated simplicity.


Oh, thought Letha, kicking herself.  "Twenty-first Tailor's Street, sir.  You don't have to escort me though, sir, I can make my way on my own just fine."  Try as she might, Letha couldn't keep her voice from shaking. 


The man looked down, contemplating what to say.  Immediately an unexpected feeling filled Letha like someone had just shown her sunlight for the first time before taking it away.  Finally he met Letha's eyes with a certain conviction.  "What is your name?"


"Letha, sir," replied Letha after a small pause.


"Well, Letha, it is my moral duty to escort any lady who happens to need my help."  There was laughter in his eyes that infuriated her.  He had been slow to show it but he was just as arrogant and full-of-himself as any other hansome man she had met.


"I free you from your moral duty then, sir," snapped Letha, pulling her arm free and continuing down the street away from his surprised look.


She might have had a head start but he had longer legs.  He easily caught up with her as she marched along. fuming like a steam-engine. 


"I apologise.  I never introduced myself.  My name is Nick.  And I pray, allow me to simply walk beside you, if you will not allow me to escort you.  It would soothe my conscience, as I could never in my right mind allow a lady to travel alone in such an unwell state."


Letha slowed and turned to face the man, Nick.  She forgot to be self-concious and she stared in shock.  He was looking at her pleadingly.  She had never heard such honesty or articulated sincerity from anyone's voice in Arcane.  Taking a deep breath, she composed herself.  Maybe he was truely simply a courteous gentleman.


"Then let me soothe your conscience; you may esort me."  His worried expression immediately fled and was replaced by an ear-to-ear smile that made Letha's heart flutter.  Her head felt light and automatically she returned his smile as he took her arm.


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