1305 Anno Domini.
I pushed through the heaving crowd of peasants and nobles crammed into the narrow square. The stench of sewage rising from the street and sweat rolling from people’s skin probed deep into my nostrils. My ears were filled with grumbles and complaints over the price of grain. Angry mutters blamed the king for his madness and beseeched the Lord for His help.
I spat out the racking cough that crawled up my throat and shook black ringlets from my eyes. I’d hack them back when I got out of the city. If I got out of the city. I swallowed another cough scratching at my windpipe. All that was needed now was another plague sweeping through the city. As if the last three hadn’t been bad enough.
A withered, brown tomato soared over the throng before diving with trebuchet accuracy to smash into the back of someone’s head. I kept a weary eye on the sky, curling my fingers around the sword hilt for the thirteenth time, realising it was the thirteenth and doing it again to round it up to fourteen.
Thirteen was unlucky and I’d need all of Lady Fortune’s favour if I was going to pull this stunt off.
I distanced myself from a scuffle caused by the tomato-stricken peasant whose pride had been pricked by the ensuing laughter. Tempers were high and the city was waiting for an excuse to burn. Lynchings, muggings, riots and religious persecution were rampant all while the king sat in his castle, fussing over his coffers. One brawl could be the tinder that set Paris ablaze brighter than a witch’s pyre.
That or an ex-Templar trying to halt an execution.
I used my size to nudge people out of the way. People’s complaints froze in their throats when they saw the steel-clad solider towering over them. My brothers in the Order had dubbed me “The Bear” both for my size and ability to soak blows in battle like rain on a lake. That moniker was only bolstered by the helmet on my head, specially crafted to resemble a snarling bear. As I pressed on, anger shifted to excitement as whispers of The Bear spread through the crowd.
These whispers were soon wiped out by the roars. A quick glance towards the raised scaffold revealed an explosion of grey fuzz that could only have made its home on the top of Josef’s head. A pair of guards were busy dragging him up the steps to where the headsman waited.
A deafening orchestra of voices rose and coalesced into one word. “Death!”
“Let me pass!” I roared at the people barring my way.
My demand was swallowed by the crowd’s fury so I lowered my shoulder and waded through their ranks like a horse in a bog. Ahead was the bright blue of the king’s soldiers, holding the crowd back from the steps leading up the timber stockade.
“Release him!” I yelled.
“You have no authority here, Templar.” A soldier bellowed back. “Run back to your temple before we plant an axe to your neck as well!”
The soldier realised he’d overstepped the mark as soon as my gauntlet crashed into his face. I heard civilians scream as blades rasped against scabbards but I was already bounding up the steps. A quick look back showed the guards too preoccupied with the crowd trying to push through the narrow opening I’d left behind to pay me much heed. No doubt, they figured the other guards up top would deal with me. I reached them as they shackled Josef’s skinny ankles and wrists to the timber floor.
“Arrêtez!” I shoved one of the wardens aside, pulling at the manacles. “Stop!”
“Richard?” A bright bubble of blood burst at the corner of Josef's mouth. “I thought you were dead.”
“There’s still time for that.”
“What in Christ’s name are you doing?” A hand grabbed my shoulder and dragged me up, no easy feat with full chainmail armour. “This man is the king’s prisoner!”
I whipped round, seeing a guard with a scar slicing his cheek. I fixed him with a gaze made all the more stonier by the grey in my eyes. “And I’m God’s soldier! What charges are you laying against him?”
His eyes widened as he took in my helmet but he swallowed and stood his ground. “Murder.”
I almost snorted. “You think he could’ve murdered someone? He can barely lift a sword!”
“It’s our job is to dole out the king’s justice.”
“It’s not justice if you condemn the wrong man to die.” I snarled.
“Do you think that makes any difference to them?” He waved a hand at the crowd screaming below us. “Right now, they’re more feral than a pack of wild dogs. The only way to cool their rage is to slake their thirst.”
I stepped into the guard's personal space. “So fetch some ale.”
“It’s him or us, Templar.”
He moved towards Josef but I put a hand against his shoulder, pushing enough so he could see it wasn’t just my sword that won fights. “Don’t touch him.”
His lip curled. “You can’t stop me.”
“If you do,” I pitched my voice over the crowd’s cries. “I will rip off your arms, shove one down your throat, one up your arse and make them shake hands.”
I shoved past him as outrage and fear warred in his eyes. I walked to the edge of the platform and held my hands up for quiet. Amazingly it worked. People at the front nudged each other, pointing at the red cross on my white torso. The wave of silence spread, rolling over even the furthest rows.
“Look at this man!” I pointed at Josef who was supposed to be looking suitably frail but was instead trying to pry off the shackles with all his might. The red face, squatting position and periodic grunts made Josef look less like a condemned man and more one who’d swallowed a large pinecone and was losing a battle with it on the privy. “Look at him! Does he look like the type who would murder another in cold blood? Who takes coin from the poor?”
“He looks like he’s about to lay an egg!” Cried a voice from the crowd to a round of laughter.
I shook my head. “His name is Josef and he’s a good man. He’s done more for the beggars, lepers and poor in this city than our king. I won’t stand by and let him die.”
“He’s a murderer!” Another voice shouted.
“He’s my friend!”
“He killed Godfrey!”
“He saved my daughter’s life!” I yelled.
“What about Godfrey’s daughters? That murderer left three children without a father!”
“He didn’t murder anyone!” I thumped a fist against my leg.
“That’s it! You’ve wasted enough time.” The guard put a hand on his sword hilt and gestured to the executioner.
“Don’t.” I warned, reaching for my own blade.
Seeing a potential way to deal with me, the guard gave me the Devil’s own grin before throwing a shout back to his friends. “He’s threatening the king’s soldier!”
Too late for words now, only blood would satisfy him. Muscle memory kicked in and the hiss of steel whispered in my ears. The crowd erupted again. The guard’s blade jolted to a stop inches from my face as the clang of steel biting steel speared my eardrums. I shoved him back and kicked his chest, putting as much power behind it as I could. He flew off the podium, crunching into his fellows at the bottom of the steps. All three were soon swallowed by the crowd.
Before he touched down, I whipped around and lunged at the remaining guard. Parry, swipe, turn and whack the flat of the blade against his helmet. I’d been on the receiving end of that trick a few times during Templar training so it was no surprise when the soldier stumbled and fell to his knees.
The actual surprise came out of his mouth when he spewed vomit on my boots.
“Gah! Do you know how long that takes to wash out!”
His answer was more vomit. So, I left him to it and turned to face the headsman, a great brute carrying a bearded axe that needed both hands. Black coth covered his face and I jumped back as he swung the weapon in a heavy arc. I narrowed my eyes and waited for him to swing again. He obliged, but this time angled the axe downwards, hoping to carve me down the middle. I darted to the side so the axe slashed through wood instead of bone.
I kicked the handle out of the executioner’s hands but he didn’t stop. He came at me with his bare fists, swinging and hollering like a drunken bear. Normally, I would have thrown down my own weapon and met him man to man but I was in a rush. The blade at his throat soon ripped the fight from him and he threw his paws up in surrender.
I beckoned for him to go and he hopped off the podium. I sheathed the sword, picked up the axe and took stock of the surroundings. The first guard had detached himself from his friends and was now wrestling with the crowd. The bodies were packed too tightly for him to make much progress back to the podium. The second was still down, clutching his head while the executioner was trying to wade through the crowd, aiming for an empty side street.
Josef stared at the axe in my hands. “What are you doing with that?”
Then he saw the intent in my eyes.
“Don’t you dare!”
I raised the axe.
“No, Richard! My balls!”
And then brought it down.
Sparks flew as the axe glanced off the chain, biting into the wood millimetres from his crotch. I swore and Josef screamed. I raised the axe once more. Clang! Twice more. Clang! Clang! The fifth strike brought the hard thump of metal biting through the mangled chain and into wood. The mob below screamed in outrage. I dropped the axe, grabbed Josef’s hand and hauled him up.
“You bastard.” His legs shook and he rubbed his crown jewels with a hand as if to make sure they were still there. “What if you’d missed?”
“Then you could’ve put them in a little bag and given them to your mistress.”
“A little bag? She’d need a horse and cart!” He gripped my shoulder and grinned. “I’m glad you’re not dead.”
“As am I, my friend.”
I scanned the crowd. “Well, I’m not going to say the obvious thing-”
“Enemies of the crown!” A disembodied voice cried from below. “Get them!”
“But let’s do the obvious thing!” Josef cried.
He leaped off the back of the podium. I did the same, thankful for the lack of people on this side. Most of the mob were around the front as that offered the best view. The ones hanging around here hadn’t seen everything and were milling about in confusion.
We ran through the streets, dodging horses, carts, pets and people alike. Behind us, the crowd screamed, frothing at being denied their kill. We curled around a corner, hearing accusations snap at our heels like hounds.
“Traitors!” Cried one.
“Murderers!” Shouted another.
“Apples and oranges, two for a shilling!” Yelled an unsuspecting merchant as we passed. His voice withered as the mob thundered around the corner screaming bloody murder. “I mean…” He screamed shrilly after what looked like a vicious bout of incontinence. “Everything’s free!”
I made a mental note to include that merchant in my prayers every night for the rest of my life. By the sweet grace of God, a good chunk of the crowd actually slowed and began to eye up his wares.
The merchant recovered swiftly after sniffing some potential sales. “Yes, everything’s free…with purchases! But only for today! Take advantage of this once in a lifetime deal! Buy two apples for a shilling and get another free. Not to be missed!” He fixed a smile in place and inconspicuously tugged at the back of his trousers.
Josef and I ducked into an alley as the rest of the mob thundered past. He leaned against a wall while I doubled over, wheezing. The thing they forget to mention in the great tales of old? Sprinting in armour is hard. Tremendously so. My shoulders had become two burning lines of fire and my throat felt like I’d chugged a tankard of sand.
Josef had it easier since he just had a tunic. Despite my strength, my knees still trembled as I pulled in ragged gasps. A cough grew in my chest, wanting nothing more than to rip from my throat and let any nearby guards know where we were. Josef thumped me on the back, trying to help but achieving nothing since the armour absorbed his blows.
I held the tickle in my throat for as long as I could but it soon flew from my lips, erupting into a chorus of harsh, stinging barks, each one trying to outdo its predecessor’s volume. I drew a rattling hand across my lips and did a quick tally.
Josef’s caught my eyes and widened his own, shaking his head frantically.
I nodded my own and he pursed his lips. The civilised silent discussion we had went a little something like this.
Don’t do it, you idiot.
There were thirteen!
I couldn’t care less if the king himself came down and told you to cough again. Don't do it!
He wagged a finger in my face. If you do it, I’ll find that axe and take a swing at your balls, except I won’t miss.
Since I was bigger than him and he weighed about the same as one of my legs, I decided I could live with that risk. So, I added one more to the pile, forcing out one last cough to avoid bad luck.
“There!” A voice bounced through the alley.
“I told you!” Josef cuffed my head. “You and your damn superstitions are going to get us killed.”
We started running again as soldiers poured into the narrow space. I glanced behind, did a quick count and groaned. “It won’t be me, it’ll be the thirteen of them.”
“Fourteen.” Josef said and threw a thumb at a red-faced guard bringing up the rear.
“Oh.” I felt a small weight lift from my shoulders. “Well that changes things.”
Unfortunately it was the guard whose brain I’d rattled and he slumped against the wall before pulling off his helmet and emptying the rest of his stomach's contents into it.
“Where are we going, Richard?” Josef yelled as I upended a cart to slow the guards down.
“Make for the gates, we need horses.”
“How about instead of asking questions, we focus on not dying?”
“Was that a question?”
Josef did as he was told and we put our heads down. My arms pumped and more than once my heart dived into my mouth as the sword sheath tried to trip me. Naturally, being lighter, quicker and more agile, Josef pulled ahead and so he was the first one to the gates. We’d made some progress on the guards and slowed down to a brisk walk, enough to avoid suspicion. We passed the guards at the gates and headed to the stables nestled against the city walls.
Josef jogged over to a horse but before he could jump on, a heavyset man showing off more eyebrow than was publicly decent popped up next to him.
“I see you’ve found one that pleases you.” He patted the horse’s neck. “She’s a beauty. Thirteenth horse I’ve sold this month.”
“Richard.” Josef warned.
His voice brooked no argument and I understood we had no time but still…. “You’re sure it was the thirteenth?”
“Don’t know for certain. Can’t count past ten.” The man grinned.
Josef beamed at me. “See? Now, lets go!”
I eyed the horse. It didn’t look too unlucky But it didn’t seem too lucky either. “And this is your only horse left?”
“Afraid so. We’ve a mule out back though.”
I glanced hopefully at Josef but he pointed at the horse and mimed getting stabbed. I brightened, maybe he was coming around to my way of thinking that we’d get robbed and murdered if we took an unlucky horse.
Until he swung a leg onto the horse’s back and said, “Come on.”
“Stop in the name of the king!” A voice shouted and a crossbow bolt skittered off a ground near us. A group of guards were running at us en masse.
I growled and grabbed the horse merchant, “Are you absolutely sure it’s the thirteenth horse?”
Instead of being helpful and providing good customer service, he squealed in terror.
“Fine!” I grumbled and hopped onto the horse in front of Josef. “But this won't end well.”
“Neither will staying here!”
“Fair point.” I dug my heels into the horse’s ribs and we shot forward as bolts buzzed past our ears. The wind rose to a whistle and my armour jangled as the horse’s hooves thumped the ground, soon settling into a steady rhythm as we pulled away from the city.
It wasn’t long before we’d gotten out of sight and left the guards far behind. Since the closest barracks stables was halfway across the city, it would take them at least an hour to gather a group on horseback to chase us. By then we’d have reached my house, gotten Tilly and be well on our way to one of the Templar safehouses dotted across the country side.
I looked back at Josef. “You know, I think we might’ve gotten lucky!”
“Are you serious?” He slapped a palm to his forehead. “Everyone knows you don’t say that!”
I frowned. “Why not?”
“Because of ducks?”
“No! Because of the big, damned branch about to-”
And that’s about as much as I heard before something clubbed my head and sent me diving into darkness.
I knew that horse was unlucky.