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As I walked away from the palace I thought over what I'd seen and smiled. Delithia hadn't had the easiest of lives and she deserved these moments of bliss that she was experiencing. She was born, much like I was, with parents who either didn't want her or couldn't afford to keep her, so they left her at the door of the orphanage at just a few months old. It had actually been Pater and I who had found her, shouting for the Sister at the top of our lungs after seeing the crying and rain soaked bundle of clothes on the front steps.

 

From that point forward Delithia was my little sister. Thinking on what the Sister had said about me being the reason for her descent into pickpocketing was not entirely unfounded, if I was being honest with myself. Like Gertrand, Delithia went through a phase of following Pater and I around the commons, watching as we begged and stole what we could to bring back to the orphanage. I'm sure the Sister knew where we got our ill gotten gains but even she was desperate back then. We had lost kids during the harsh winters before because of lack of food, or even warm clothing, so she didn't question us too much. Just thanked us and gave each of us a kiss on the forehead, our payment for our hard work.

 

It made me quite melancholic, looking back at those darker times. While a large part of me had just wanted to get as far away from Myrin as possible when I joined the band, there was another that craved the financial security of the orphanage. To return as a conquering hero, a swordsman, who had earned barrels of coin to hand over to the Sister and see the proud smile on her face.

 

Naive dreams of a naive child. But it had all worked out in the end, which was something that I didn't see coming. If I ever saw the Princess Elora I might just give her a hug, protocol be damned.

 

I chuckled at the foolish thought. Of course, if I did attempt to get close to the Princess, I would be killed by either the guard or the Royal Protector himself. I didn't exactly exude cuddly and non-threatening.

 

I made my way back to the central square of the inner city and spied the office of the city guard on the far side of the wide area where the ceremony of the Princess would be held tomorrow.

 

As I looked around the paved space I couldn't help but think about security. The area was too open. You could probably fit half the city in this place without too much trouble.

 

I looked over to find the stage for the ceremony had already been erected at the far side of the square, as far back from the commons gate as possible. I didn't blame them really, the smell was something awful in the commons and they would want to try and spare the royals from that.

 

Still though, the buildings that surrounded the square, mainly shops and various businesses along with the city guard office, were short and squat. More than a few of them had flat roofs built with wood instead of the tiled roofs that were more common in the outer city. Perfect for an archer to set up shop. If it was me I would set men up on those buildings as well as having patrols moving through the back alleys behind the shops in an attempt to keep curious cut-throats away.

 

I shook my head. Why was I thinking about this? They surely had better military minds than a former mercenary, not to mention that I was sure that at least some Knights would be in attendance.

 

The Knight of the Frozen River would definitely be there, as she was First Knight of the Kingdom and the personal protector of the King and Queen.

 

Not that they needed it, of course. It was said that the Queen herself was the Knight of the frozen rivers equal in combat and that her husband, the King, was a powerful Smith and support in her favour. They were rarely seen fighting any more, but I had heard from a few of the old timers in the city that during the first war with the merchant republic the Queen, then a Princess, had been a terror on the battlefield. As a result of that battle, and many others I'm sure, the Queen had earned the title of First Knight before handing the title down to Lady Vera after ascending the throne.

 

I had actually gotten to see Lady Vera fight once, during a skirmish in the Kingdom of Zelethi. She had been asked to assist due to a mutual protection agreement between Zelethi, Venos and a few other of the more powerful monarchies in the northern territories.

 

She had been ice personified and her long glaive of shining crystal had left men broken, beaten and frozen in her wake. Even thinking about it now gave me a chill that caused me to shiver.

 

It made me rethink my earlier assessment of ever being truly able to defeat a Knight in single combat. They just had too many advantages in their Smith-forged weaponry and armour, not to mention the Smith themselves. Lady Vera's Smith was her sister I believed, though I couldn't recall the name.

 

A common misconception about Knights and Smiths was that they were forced to marry upon their Bonding. Not so. In fact, some would argue that having a sibling as a Smith was better in the long run because how well they worked together depended on the link they shared. Or something like that. Boldrin had tried to explain it to me once but I didn't understand half of what he said. The only time Knights and Smiths were ever guaranteed to marry was during royal Bondings, like between the Princess and the Duke.

 

Every kid wanted to be a Knight. It was a commonly held dream, even among the peasants. Even though there hadn't been a common Knight in nearly a century because all the Smiths were born into Noble bloodlines. Technically anyone could be a Knight, but not everyone could be a Smith. Because the Smiths got to pick whomever they wanted to fight with them they never chose common folk. I don't know why that is. I'm sure there's a reason, but it could be that they just didn't like the idea of the peasantry having any real power. That was the only reason that made sense to me.

 

Pater, Gertrand and I used to talk about one day marrying a Noble maiden and becoming a Knight and protector of the Kingdom. Absurd to the mind of a grown man, but anything is possible in the eyes of a child. The memories of our heated discussions on who would be the best Knight put a smile on my face. A smile for innocence lost. The three of us had no doubt been through our share of troubles, even before I left the city. We were jaded now and knew our places in life, but we each strived for better in our own way. Though the way of Pater and Gertrand was not the easy fix they thought it was. Crime in the Commons was always there and the gangs were behind most of it but it didn't make you special to be a part of something like that. In my mind, it merely made you look foolish. Criminals rarely died in their beds. Then again, neither did mercenaries.

 

I walked into the guard office, pulling glares off the men stationed at the door but nothing else, fortunately. I didn't want to cause problems before I'd even begun the job.

 

The office of the city guard was an ugly little building, and a bit on the small side. Inside the building were a handful of men and women in red livery running back and forth with papers in hand and swords at their hips. I hope I wouldn't have anything to do with that. The Sister had taught me my letters but she would be the first to tell you that it is near illegible. After asking for directions from a harried looking guard member, I made my way to the captains office, a small hole in the wall that barely had room to move in by the looks of things, though the door was open and I could see a man sitting behind it, scribbling furiously on parchment like a man possessed.

 

“Excuse me, sir, may I have a moment of your time?” I asked politely after rapping on the heavy wood.

 

The man looked up from his place behind the desk and instantly I knew he was some kind of soldier before joining with the guard. His hair was combed back, as though scraped against the skull and there was more than a little grey mixed in with the dark brown. His eyes were the same colour as his hair, though darker, almost black in the dim light coming from the small window. He was heavily built. Not as large as Boldrin, but large enough where I could be reasonably sure that his primary weapon was not a sword.

 

He raised an eyebrow at my entry. “If you have something to report, take it to the clerk at the front desk.”

 

I shook my head. “I'm not here to report a wrongdoing, sir. I was hoping to inquire about a job.”

 

He sighed then and almost reluctantly indicated the chair that stood opposite his desk.

 

He leaned forward in his chair, quill still in hand and ink on his fingers, as I took a seat. “Look, son, I appreciate a young man like you coming here and wanting to do his civic duty. But, as you could see outside, we're overstaffed as it is. Can barely fit the essential personal in this building and we've got about thirty patrols out in the city, not counting the gate guards on rotation. We've simply got no space.”

 

I frowned. “I'm good with a sword, sir. I served with the company of Boldrin's Brigade for four years.”

 

“Really? With Boldrin?” The man asked, looking surprised, and a little more eager to hear me out. “Been a long time since I've heard that name. How's he been?”

 

It was my turn to be surprised and pleasantly so. Thank the Spirit this guy knew Boldrin. If he did then he would know that he doesn't take wastrels on in his band and he might be more willing to give me a chance.

 

“Good, sir. He's in the city right now, though I don't know for how long. Said something about a job in the area, but he didn't tell me much about it.”

 

“Why not, if you're a member of his Brigade?” The captain asked with narrowed eyes.

 

I shrugged in response. “I made it known that I wasn't going to be staying once we made it back to Myrin. This is my home, sir. My family is here and there's little else for a man with my sort of skill set to do expect to join the guard.” I answered honestly, thinking there was no reason to lie to the man.

 

The man hummed softly and looked over to another pile of papers that stood on a small desk against the far wall. He reached for one of the papers and snatched one up.

 

“Boldrin's a good man. Well, perhaps not a good man, but he gets the job done and he's loyal to who pays him. I'm also not surprised that he didn't tell you about this job of his, always liked to play his cards close to his chest.”

 

“If you don't mind me asking, sir, how do you know Boldrin?”

 

“From during my time in the Venosian military. A few years ago I worked with Boldrin when we were having some trouble with bandits in the forests east of the city. Troublesome business that. Bandits aren't particularly skilled in combat, but they more than make up for it by being annoying shits. Poisoning our water while we slept, hamstringing our horses, firing arrows from the tree's. Spirit knows I hate bloody bandits.” The captain grumbled and handed over the paper in his hand. “Boldrin was the one who figured out how to take the sods down. We had to burn part of the forest to do it, but it'll grow back in time. A good mercenary, good warrior. From what I remember his band is full of tough bastards so if you were one of them I think that more than qualifies you for a guard position, to hell with over staffing. What I need is men who know how to handle themselves and I have too few of those. Plus, you're from the city and that always helps.”

 

I took the paper and discovered it to be a form for employment and couldn't help but grin. I didn't think it would be this easy.

 

“Don't get your hopes up yet, kid. If I can confirm that you were a part of the band then I'll give you a shot, not like I'm going to take your word for it,” He said casually, returning to what he was doing before. “No offence.”

 

“None taken, sir. I think Boldrin is down by the gates, staying in the inn there with the rest of the band.”

 

The captain grumbled. “Same place as always then. I should post some more guards around there. If that mad bastard's here then they'll be a few brawls: there always is.”

 

I nodded sagely. Sometimes Boldrin couldn't help himself. After I got settled, maybe I'll stop by and pay them a visit. It would ruin the farewell we shared, but it would be nice to celebrate with them, considering how lively the city was going to become tomorrow.

 

“Return here the day after tomorrow, I'm going to be running around like a fool during the wedding and I won't have time to shit, never mind put you on the roster.”

 

“Yes, sir, I'll do that. I'm Orin, by the way.”

 

The captain, eyes still on the sea of paper in front of him, nodded. “Orin. I'm Captain Lederby.”

 

“A pleasure, Captain, until next time.”

 

He waved a hand in farewell, or dismissal, and I made my way back out into the central square.

 

As soon as I left the building, I let loose an explosive breath of relief. I had a lot riding on this today. I didn't want to have to become an apprentice cobbler or something of that nature. I wanted to work with the sword and the guard was the next best thing to being a mercenary. The pay was shit in comparison, but that meant little if I could stay close to the Sister and the orphanage. My position in the guard might even let me help Gertrand and Pater, on the off chance that they get caught and are consigned to the rope. Don't know why that thought popped into my head.

 

Gertrand maybe deserved a chance, but Pater had made his choice and he'd abandoned the Sister. Perhaps there was more to the story that Delithia was telling me, but I couldn't get past the fact that he had pushed the Sister so far as to actually throw him out of the orphanage. For something like that to happen could only mean he'd done something terrible.

 

I sighed as I walked towards the gate to the commons, my good mood already ruined with thoughts of my oldest friend. Maybe it was time for me to contact him, though I was unsure how to go about doing it. If what the Sister said was true then Pater was one of the Common Dogs now and those ass holes were responsible for a lot of hardship in the Commons. The guard had a standing order to arrest any suspected members on sight, so I very much doubted that Pater would be dancing around in the marketplace.

 

Then I remembered what Sasta had said the night before, about Gertrand hanging around the square with a bunch of Pater's 'friends'. I had intended to stop by at some point today and knock some sense into the kid, but I could also inquire as to the location of my fellow orphan. The words of the Sister telling me not to get involved popped up in my head, but I knew what I was doing. I had handled a few street toughs before and knew they were just thugs that used their large numbers and a healthy does of fear to get what they wanted. I had nothing to fear from them as long as they didn't come at me too hard.

 

I didn't have to pay a fee to get back into the Commons, which was something of a relief. I wasn't naïve enough to believe that the guard were all altruistic and noble in their duties. Some of them were little better than the gangs they hunted. Another thing I knew intimately from my childhood. If I was shaken down for coin on the way back to the outer city I wouldn't have been surprised in the slightest. Maybe these guards were actually good men or they just saw the sword and knew not to cause trouble. Either way I didn't have a problem.

 

The journey back down the Old Road went smoothly and I arrived in the marketplace to find that the crowd had petered out some, giving me room to maneuver through the still thick crowds. I circled the block a few times, gazing idly at what was on display at the stalls. They were trinkets, really, of no real value though there was a few pieces that were quite lovely. I noticed a necklace that had a small golden acorn on a silver chain. I bought it for Delithia after some stiff haggling. I wasn't sure if the Princess would lend the girl some jewellery for the occasion but better to give her something for her special day. That thought cheered me up immensely and I continued my search, reinvigorated.

 

“Orin? Orin, my boy, is that you?”

 

I turned towards the voice and was surprised to see I recognised the speaker. It was Laird, the tailor who operated out of the Commons. An old man with white hair and thick spectacles. I had always thought he was at least partially blind when I was younger, but he had spotted me from ten feet away, poking his head out of his rundown store front. Spirit knows I tried to steal a coin or two from under his watch, but the man always caught me. Instead of punishing me, however, he would always laugh and throw me a copper. He had endeared himself to me a lot over the years and it was a pleasure to see him again.

 

“Laird! Good to see you again, my friend,” I grinned. “See your eyes are as sharp as ever. It took the Sister a few moments to recognise me.”

 

Laird harrumphed and waved a hand through the air. “That old bird must be blinder than I am then. Come in, come in. I can see from here that you're in need of the best tailor in the city.”

 

I laughed at that. It was always a point of contention for Laird on who the best tailor in the city was. Holonzo from the inner city was the tailor to the royal family and did all the Nobles clothes, but Laird called him a hack and unworthy of the title.

 

I shrugged and followed him inside. I did say I would have to do something about getting some new clothing, and I trusted Laird to do a good job. Plus, I couldn't find Gertrand in the square and had been just about to give up before Laird called me. Despite him enjoying the fact that people perceived him as blind, he was a shrewd man with sharp eyes and prone to gossip like an old fishwife. If anyone had seen Gertrand hanging around with a gang it would be Laird.

 

I entered his little shop to find it just as messy and dishevelled as always. A reflection of the man himself, perhaps. Bolts of fabric, measuring tapes and half finished creations were sprawled on every piece of furniture and the floor itself. Careful not step on anything for fear of drawing the man's ire I hopped and skipped over to where Laird stood behind his counter.

 

“By the Great Spirit, Orin. Who did those leathers? They're abysmal, and the tunic, the hose! Who would create such poor work.”

 

I smiled. “I didn't have access to you Laird, so I had to make do with what I could find. I bought this in Illis about a year ago.”

 

“It shows,” replied Laird. “That bloody thing is three inches too short in the sleeve. You look like you're wearing the clothes of a child. Come now, let me take some measurements and I'll fix you up.”

 

“Friends rates?” I asked and Laird bopped me lightly on the head with his measuring tape.

 

“Friends rates. You're lucky I don't throw you out of my shop right now. That outfit stings my eyes, Orin, stings! They also smell of horse manure. You have to wash your clothes as often as you do yourself, Orin. You'll never find a woman with that kind of attitude.”

 

I sighed and merely nodded along as Laird expertly took measurements, noting them in a small piece of parchment he had sitting on the counter with the quill behind his ear. Best not to let him know that the ink was dripping off the tip and down his cheek.

 

“Was glad I ran into you Laird. Was hoping I could ask you about something.”

 

“Anything my boy, you know that.” Laird said absently, still hard at work.

 

“Have you seen Gertrand around anywhere? Sasta told me that he hangs out with some undesirables near the market.”

 

Laird sighed and finished taking his measurements before answering. “Some horrid business that. I've seen him around, Sasta was right about that. But calling the fiends he's hanging about with undesirable is a shoddy way to put it.”

 

“How so?”

 

Laird leaned against the counter. “They're Common Dogs, Orin. The worst of the worst. They take money from all the stalls and shops in the market in exchange for 'protection,'” Laird laughed bitterly. “The sad thing is it's protection from them. I've seen Gertrand sitting with a particularly bad egg among those thugs. A fellow by the name of Sig the pig.”

 

“Sig the pig?” I asked, rolling my eyes. These street toughs and their silly nicknames.

 

Laird looked me in the eye. “Aye, the name is stupid enough, Orin, but don't let that fool you. This Sig is a low rung in the Dogs but he's also got a mean streak a mile wide. He's just one of the enforcers that work the market, but no one wants a visit from him. You remember Mrs Hollies, the herbalist that has her shop down the street?”

 

I nodded in recognition. Everyone knew Mrs Hollies. She was as tough as old bark and took shit from nobody. She was kind though, and more than once she had offered a tincture to the Sister free of charge when one of the kids got sick. I felt sick to the stomach when I thought that something might have happened to her.

 

“That bastard Sig broke her jaw, leg and three of her ribs. Nearly killed her, Orin. She closed up shop, moved further south to live with her daughter in Mertyl.”

 

I clenched my fists and grit my teeth at hearing that. Mrs Hollies was old even when I was young and she had lost her husband to bandits years before that, having to raise her daughter all by herself. She was a good and strong woman, someone you would be proud to call your neighbour. The fact that a small time thug had been allowed to drive her out of town was unacceptable.

 

“When did this happen?” I asked stiffly.

 

“Late last year. A lot of people went to the guard, myself included, but it was brushed under the carpet. The Common Dogs know which palms to grease with coin.”

 

“Fucking animals!” I all but snarled.

 

“There's something else, Orin.” Laird said seriously. “Gertrand was there when it happened. I saw it all. He didn't do anything to Mrs Hollies, in fact he looked terrified himself that Sig might kill her. But he was there, and he's still hanging about with those bastards.”

 

I narrowed my eyes at that. My anger burning cold. When Gertrand was a boy, he had almost died from a bad fever. It was Mrs Hollies who had treated him for it because the Sister couldn't afford to hire a doctor. She hadn't asked for a single copper in return.

 

I thought my palms would bleed from just how deeply I was plunging my nails into my skin. I was angry. At Sig, at Gertrand, but more than anything I was angry at myself. If I hadn't left maybe I could've stopped Gertrand from starting down this path. It was silly thought. If I had stayed I might have been doing the exact same thing.

 

“Do you know where they hang out, Laird?” I asked quietly.

 

“Easy now, Orin. I didn't tell you this so you could go off swinging that sword around. Killing someone ain't the answer and it will only cause more problems in the long run.”

 

I could understand, begrudgingly, where Laird was coming from. But people like this didn't learn their lesson if you just gave them a rap on the nose and sent them on their way. No, men like that learned from action.

 

“I'm not going to kill anyone, Laird. I just want to make sure Gertrand is okay and to take him away from folks like that. He's only fourteen and as far as I know he hasn't done anything to fuck up his life just yet. But you and I both know that it's only a matter of time. Please tell me where they are. I'll bring Gertrand back to the orphanage.”

 

Laird looked me in the eye for second before sighing in defeat and falling into the chair behind his counter. He lifted his already lit pipe and took a draw, staring off into space, thinking.

 

“No killing?” He asked quietly.

 

“No killing. I swear on the Spirit.” I found that I meant what I said. If I killed a Common Dog I'd just cause problems, but there was nothing wrong with teaching a lesson. I'm sure the gang would retaliate but it wouldn't be anything I couldn't handle and it would be focused on me, not Gertrand.

 

“Fine, boy. I always liked you. Thought you were meant for bigger things than all this,” He gestured with his pipe. “Madness.”

 

I smiled sadly. “You can't help what you're good at, Laird.”

 

“No, I suppose you can't,” The man jumped to his feet and clapped a hand on my arm. “They've been loitering in the alley behind Mrs Hollies shop since she left town. Sig likes to brag to his friends about it and he's not too careful about who knows where he is. Just be careful, Orin. There used to be some kind of code among the gangs, but it's just gotten more and more chaotic as times gone on. Beating on old women, it just ain't right.”

 

I returned the gesture and made for the door, already seeing my destination in mind.

 

“Stop by in a couple of days for your clothes.” Laird said weakly in way of farewell, as if he half-expected me not to return at all.

 

I raised a hand to acknowledge what he said but didn't turn around. I was on a mission now, and I felt that same mindset slip over me as when I was in the band. There would be bloodshed today, of that I had no doubt.

 

Despite my anger, I was still thinking rationally. No matter how good I was with the sword, I couldn't beat endless numbers of thugs. They would overwhelm me soon enough and it would be me bleeding out in the dirt. I started to wish that I had one or two members of the band with me. Tessa would be ideal. She was as quiet as a mouse when she wanted to be and could sneak up on whole patrols of armed men without being seen.

 

But I didn't have that luxury and I'm not sure I would ask for her help even if I did. This was my home and Gertrand was my brother. I had failed him once before and I would be damned if I did it again.

 

The walk to Mrs Hollies shop was a short one and wasn't hard to find, it stood near the very corner of the large marketplace and I couldn't have missed it. I took note of the shattered windows and what appeared to be the word 'whore' written in pigment on the sign that once said Apothecary. My fury burned brighter, but still remained cold.

 

I moved through the alley just to the left of the shop and slipped down the sides of two building, taking note of the trash and refuse that had been allowed to pile up. Something that Mrs Hollies would have never allowed.

 

I heard them before I saw them, at least five voices shouting and whooping. There was also the sound of lute being played which meant they had some entertainment. Well, wasn't that nice of them. I rounded the corner to find much what I expected. A bunch of idiots sitting on crates that had no doubt been pilfered from the shop they were hiding behind. More than a few of them had been cracked open and the valuable herbs inside, useless to an idiotic thug like Sig, sat rotting in odd places on the ground.

 

I was wrong in my initial assessment of the threat. There were seven of them. Two were sitting down and the others were dancing around in circles, having a merry time. One of the sitting men was the one playing the lute but I immediately disregarded him of having any part in what was to come. For one thing, he was as thin as a whip and for another, he looked terrified. Pale and playing the lute with nervous and twitching fingers, causing the music to sound off to my ears.

 

The other man who was sitting down was no man at all. It was Gertrand. He was a young man, his skin darker than most because of his heritage. His father had been from Andapa and his mother Venosian born. He was smiling and clapping at the dancing fools in front of him and whooping in time with the music. My little brother had yet to notice me but that was alright. He would see me very soon.

 

The five people dancing were no doubt the ones I had to worry about. Two were women, which left the three men as the prime threat. I had no doubt that both those women could cause some damage to me, but I discounted them on account of the long dresses they wore. On closer inspection I saw the smeared make-up on their faces, heavily applied, and the sickly pallor to their skin.

 

Whores, then, and from the look of them, they were cheap.

 

No threat.

 

That left the three men and they certainly fit the profile for 'hard man'. All three had tattoos lacing their arms, shoddy work done in a hurry. Their clothes were frayed and worn but comfortable enough that they had at least some money. Two of the men had long hair falling over their eyes and I took note of their weapons. The first man had a hatchet stuck through his belt and the other had a short sword of dubious make, considering the amount of rust I could see on the hilt.

 

It was the third man who drew my attention, however. He was a full head taller than his friends, giving him a couple of inches on me. His clothes were worn in the same way as his compatriots but they were doubtfully more expensive. The tunic he wore looked like it had once belonged to a noble who had thrown it out. It was stretched over the man's bulbous frame, dangerously close to tearing completely. His eyes were almost popping out of his skull and his hair had been shaved down to the scalp. On his hip was a longsword similar to my own.

 

Sig the pig, I presume.

 

“Gentlemen! Ladies!” I said with a smile waving a hand in the air and stepping fully from the alley to draw their attention.

 

The man with the lute immediately jumped in place and stopped his playing, nervously looking at me and then at the growling Sig who had turned on the man as soon as he stopped.

 

“Did I say stop playing, asshole?” Sig snapped before kicking the man in the face with one large leg, causing the would be bard to fall off the crate he had been sitting on and curl around his lute on the floor. The ladies tittered nervously, still attached to Sig and whispering how strong he was into his ears.

 

Sig pushed the women off him with a hiss and stepped forward, his two heavies taking their place a couple of steps behind and to either side of him. I wondered if they practised that? They certainly were very good at the whole intimidating thing, but I wasn't impressed.

 

“What do we have here. A fool with a sword. Got any coin on you, fool? Me and the boys charge to come through here!” Sig yelled loudly and his henchmen laughed as if on cue.

 

It broke my heart to look over and see Gertrand on his feet, a long dagger pulled from a scabbard at his waist. He looked so small, barely having grown an inch or two in four years. If I didn't see how much his face had aged I would think he hadn't changed at all. Unfortunately for my little brother, I wasn't going to put up with any bullshit like the Sister.

 

Sit yourself back on that fucking crate, Gertrand. If you move, try to run or do anything stupid, like attack me, I will break both your arms. Got that?” I snarled the words at the young man and he physically flinched as the realisation of who I am dawned on him.

 

“You know this asshole, Gert?” Sig asked, unconcerned, still trying to stare me down with his large and milky eyes.

 

Gertrand took a second to think about it before his expression hardened and he nodded. “Yeah, this is a kid from the orphanage I grew up in. Thinks he's all fancy cause he got a sword.”

 

I blinked and stared at the boy who returned my gaze with equal intensity. Did he hate me for leaving so much that he would wish me harm? Didn't matter. The boy could act tough all he wanted. Today he'd go back home and apologise to the Sister, then he would send a letter to Mrs Hollies and apologise to her for his part in that sordid affair. He's lucky he didn't take a more active part in her beating, or I would have beaten him just as badly.

 

“Oh, another little orphan. Fancy ain't he, boys?” Sig looked around and they all laughed, including Gertrand. That boy was really pissing me off. “Looks like a nice sword there. Did you come to get little Gertie? Well he's a Dog now so fuck off, and leave the sword.” Sig said nastily, his hand dropping to the hilt of his blade and his men did the same. Gertrand still had his knife in hand, I wondered if he would be a threat but discounted it. My little brother wouldn't hurt me.

 

I laughed loudly and took a step forward, causing the men to stop laughing. They weren't used to fighting fair, they were cowards at heart. That's all they were.

 

Tell me, Gertie. Did you really just watch that fat fuck beat on Mrs Hollies?” I asked plainly, ignoring Sig and his muscle. “Did you watch as the woman who once saved your life was beaten half to death by your new friends?”

 

I pushed for an answer and in response Gertrand's face tightened and his eyes fell to the floor in shame. As well he should, my rage began to mount.

 

Sig bellowed with laughter. “That old whore? She's lucky I didn't fucking kill her. Say no to me? Say no to the Dogs? Not on your life. Everyone pays.” Sig drew his sword that left it's scabbard with a screeching hiss. As I thought it was splotched red with rust.

 

I drew my own sword and it was silent, I held it easily by my side. That seemed to surprise Sig for some reason. The sight of my sword, bright and shining, compared his poor excuse for a weapon made him hesitate. Then I realised what it was and I couldn't stop myself from laughing.

 

“What the fuck you howling about!” snarled Sig the pig.

 

“You're afraid! I thought I would be in for a better time than this. Do you even know how to use that thing or do you just wave it around in front of old women?” I questioned him mockingly, twirling my sword in one hand, causing Sig and his boys to back up another step. Gertrand had gone pale.

 

“Fuck you asshole! You'd better get out of here if you know what's good for you.” Sig said stiltedly, waving his rusty sword in front of him clumsily, his men doing the same behind him.

 

“No, I don't think I will. You seem to be right handed Sig, so I'll make you a deal,” I said, still walking forwards. “Give me your right hand and I'll let you and your friends go. Gertrand stays with me, of course, but I'm sure you find another lackey to follow you.”

 

Gertrand bristled at that and turned to Sig. “Get him, Sig. He just thinks he's special but he's got nothing. Kick his ass!”

 

“Shut up!” Sig shouted, a hand smacking Gertrand upside the head. The strength of that weighty paw slammed into my brothers head with the force of a hammer and knocked him to the ground, sending his dagger skittering away. Gertrand groaned from his place on the ground and I decided I had seen enough. He was a little asshole, but he was still my brother.

 

I flowed forwards, my momentum low to the ground as I approached Sig, the point of my sword dancing in the air. Sig let loose with a panicked swing of his rusty blade and I parried it with ease, just in time to block the overhead strike coming from the man with the hatchet. The man with the short sword had run away, dropping his blade as he went. Fucking coward.

 

Sig tried once again but he had no skill and each of his strikes were poorly executed. He had power but little control of his weapon and I found it easy to dance circles around him, occasionally blocking a blow from the man with the hatchet dismissively.

 

“Die!” Sig screamed and barrelled forward, no doubt hoping to use his greater size to trap me.

 

I slipped to the side as he barrelled past and whipped my sword up, feeling it bite into the wrist of his sword hand and out the other side. Just like that, Sig's hand fell to the floor and he screamed once more. This time in pain instead of anger, and fell to the ground, groaning in agony.

 

The man with the hatchet lost his bottle at that point and threw his weapon to the ground before running away, leaving me standing next to the bleeding and unconscious Sig, and Gertrand, who had seen the whole thing from his place on the ground.

 

The man with the lute must have slipped away at some point, I hadn't noticed his departure but it made no difference. He wouldn't say anything to the guard, not if he wanted the Dogs breathing down his neck.

 

Gertrand stared at Sig with a pale and horrified expression on his face before his eyes lifted to meet mine. He looked scared, scared of me. I wanted him to be afraid.

 

I walked over to my little brother and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, lifting him to his feet with ease.

 

“Orin, I'm sorry, I'm-” Gertrand couldn't finish his sentence on account of the fist I had just plunged into his gut. He fell to the ground once again and curled up again, whimpering in pain.

 

“Yes, you will be sorry, boy.” I snarled and half carried, half dragged the boy over to the entrance to the alley. “You want to be a man so much then you can take a little pain. Now get fucking moving. We're going back home and you're saying sorry to the Sister. Then we'll deal with what you and your friends did to Mrs Hollies.”

 

“I didn't touch her, Orin, I swear I didn't hurt her!” shouted the crying boy. “I couldn't move, I didn't know what to do.”

 

“You could've gotten help. You could've run to the guard or even run home to tell the Sister, but you didn't. The only reason you're not a pile of bloody scraps on the ground is because you didn't join in.”

 

Fuck you, Orin!” Gertrand cried out and pulled free from my grip, rounding on me with fear in his eyes. “You weren't here! You left all of us behind! Even Pater left me behind. Sig is an asshole but working for him made me feel like I could actually do something with my life. Make me feel like I was more than Orin and Pater's little brother, that I was worth something!”

 

Gertrand balled up his fists and attacked me. I blocked the blows and held Gertrand at a distance. I didn't try to stop him. He deserved this, at least. Because I had left him behind. I had abandoned him. One day he had his brothers and the next he didn't. I can't even say I wouldn't have done the exact same thing in his position and that thought terrified me. Being an orphan in the Commons gave you few prospects for a good future.

 

I caught the boy's arms and pulled him into a hug dragging him closer to me and holding his still flailing hands by his sides. He cried into my shoulder, weeping and roaring with no care to who heard.

 

“I'm back now, Gertrand. I promise, I ain't leaving again.” I whispered the words into my brother's ear and he wept louder than ever, throwing his arms around my back and pulling me closer, if that was possible.

 

There we were, two brothers back together after four long years apart. I wasn't optimistic enough to think that this was the end of our problems. Far from it. I would need to prove that I was always going to be there for him and he needed to prove to me and the rest of the family that he wasn't just a common criminal.

 

But it was a start.

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FirstKnight

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