The splintering door shattered Vadim’s peaceful sleep. A booming voice ripped through the early morning tranquility.
“You slept with my wife!”
His instincts took over, and he threw himself to the floor beside the bed in an effort to avoid the oncoming blow… that never came. Furniture exploded, a man roared again, and yet Vadim’s room lay seemingly undisturbed. Daring himself to peek at the carnage, he raised his head up so that his eyes were above the lip of the bed, just over the edge of the sheets.
And saw only his guest from the previous evening…
She met his blue-eyed gaze, “Is there something amiss, milord?”
“I thought…,” Vadim caught a glimpse of himself in the full-length mirror along the wall beside him and observed his predicament; his manhood exposed and him cowering on the floor. No way for one of the King’s Men to behave. He stood up allowing his six-foot frame to come to its full height. It was not the nudity that brought awkwardness, but his stumbling and fumbling about on the floor. In fact, he never had any complaints about his appearance. The other Long Riders often teased him for his boyish grin, his bright, blue eyes, and his shaggy blonde hair. All of which resided on an untouched face, somehow free of any scars or wounds in his years journeying the Circuit. “This is rather embarrassing. I thought perhaps that which is happening next door was instead being visited upon the two of us. It’s not occurring in this room though, is it?”
“No, milord, it is not.” The freckled young woman stifled a giggle and ran her hands through her long blonde hair attempting to excise any tangles she found there. Vadim paused and stared into her deep green eyes trying to light a candle, which would be her name.
The wall behind the bed shuddered. Pieces of the ceiling flaked off and fell to the floor. Next door, a woman screamed.
Vadim searched for his trousers and found them tangled with his tunic and his consort’s skirt and blouse, all of it abandoned in a pile the night before. As he pulled up his trousers, he heard another crash, this time away from their shared wall. Then came more shouting from the hall and additional voices joined the chorus with the first.
Vadim glanced at… Sara? Trianna? and raised a finger. “One moment.”
Tightening his belt, he moved towards the door. Through the wood, he heard the shouting continue. There were calls for blood, pain, and then a slur of unmentionable deeds described by someone who must have been the original injured party. Vadim ran fingers through his blonde hair before gripping the handle. Preparing himself for the carnage, he took a deep breath.
When the door opened, he bore witness to sheer chaos. How the inn’s hallway could support the volume of patrons who watched, cheered, and shouted at the two combatants, he could not be sure. They crowded each end of the corridor, some stood just inside their open doorways, but all wanted to see these combatants duel. However, the word duel invoked images of two men squaring off in agreed-upon combat. This stank of something else entirely.
Vadim caught glimpses of the two men, flashes between arms and legs of the mob until he made himself a place in the crowd. It was only then that he could see the fight for what it was. Spittle erupted through the barrel chested man’s full black beard with each roar. A giant of a man, but not one someone might call attractive. His eyes appeared a bit too close to each other while his forehead seemed to slope until it gave way to a receding hairline. He appeared to have a full foot on his opponent giving him the reach advantage, but it seemed the smaller was adept at using his quickness to slip under the devastating blows. The two stumbled, the sea of bodies parted, and they crashed to the floor in front of Vadim.
“Jericho, how goes your morning? Rest well?” Vadim shouted above the din of the crowd hoping to catch his oldest friend’s attention.
Jericho looked up from his assailant. His red hair clung to the side of his face. Blood leaked from various cuts and lacerations on his head. In fact, red appeared to be the only thing that covered him.
Vadim smirked and shouted again. “Did you notice you don’t have any pants on?”
Jericho struggled to keep the large man’s blows from colliding with his body. “Perhaps you’d like to lend a bit of help?
His assailant bellowed, slamming a fist into the floor, just missing Jericho’s head, denting the wooden planks. “My wife!”
The two twisted and scrapped, each trying to gain some kind of advantage. Jericho managed to regain his feet and pushed away.
“He says you slept with his wife. Is that true?” Vadim asked the question through the din of noise, but did not give Jericho time to answer, “Tsk, tsk.”
A wild swing and another dodge.
“Vadim! I promise you, that was never my intention.”
“This gentleman would beg to differ on that point.”
“She never spoke anything of having a husband,” he spoke first to Vadim and then shouted it again at the large man, “I didn’t know!”
“It was our wedding night!”
Vadim whistled at the revelation, “Doesn’t seem like this man is all that eager to issue forgiveness. And even if he was, your explanation is not going to cover it.”
Jericho awaited the oncoming charge and slipped to the side under the brute’s undisciplined swings. The giant rammed into some of the crowd, toppling them in a mass of arms and legs.
“Even so, a little help?” Jericho screeched the last before sidestepping another missed blow.
Vadim nodded, “Right. Uhm… one moment.”
He turned back into his room and shut the door, muffling the roar slightly. He strode towards the partially dressed… Pia? Selene? … woman sitting on the edge of the bed.
“Terrible thing, my mate is out there getting his head bashed in by a rather large, angry fellow. Something about sleeping with his wife. A pity. Still, it now falls to me to save the… wait; you’re not married, are you?”
She blushed and shook her head. “No, milord.”
“Right. Brilliant. Wouldn’t want to have a similar exchange as those two out there.”
Vadim scanned the room for the remainder of his belongings. Sunlight glinted off the small emerald gem sealed inside the pommel of his sword, which was resting in the corner alongside his pack.
He fastened the weapon around his waist before sliding his cuirass over his head. With one hand, he reached into his small pack and fetched a silver coin from a pouch within.
“You were a sheer delight, and I would love to spend another glorious evening with you when I return from the Long Ride in…,” his brain struggled with the length of time he would be away, “a few months’ time. If that would please you?”
A smile appeared as she blushed again. “Indeed, milord, it would.”
Vadim moved close and pulled her off the bed into him. Their lips met and she engaged his tongue with her own. His free hand explored her exposed right breast with one final squeeze before relinquishing its touch. He felt the familiar stirring in his trousers. He heard her moan softly and the bed creak as she lowered herself to engage him elsewhere. Yet it was what his ears did not pick up that troubled him. Only muffled sounds of the fracas filled the air to the point he could not be sure there was a fight left. He released his grip on her and slid back to the entrance to the room. A quick turn of the handle and an empty hallway greeted him.
“For your breakfast,” he turned and flipped the silver to her, “though I might wait until the festivities ran their course. Farewell…” Rachel? Miranda? “milady. Until I return!”
The hall was in disarray. The door to Jericho’s room hung lazily from one hinge. Shards of broken wood lay scattered, marking the path of destruction, a trail of crumbs leading him downstairs into the main area of the inn.
Vadim took the stairs two at a time. Jericho was the one man in the company he did not want to see injured. Of all the King’s Men Vadim had ridden with, Jericho was the only one who always had his back, whether it was when they were under fire from bandits or dealing with the strangeness of the infected. The man knew no fear, and never hesitated to rush in alongside Vadim. His other brothers never showed that kind of loyalty.
Now he hoped that he had not misjudged the threat his friend was under. As he made his way around the last corner, a mug exploded on the wall near him. Remnants of someone’s coffee leaked down the paneling. Those patrons from the second floor filled the dining area. They had pushed the tables and chairs up against the walls and out of the way. Their faces contorted in a frenzied desire to observe more pain.
“Break his face!”
Each time Jericho tried to cut a path through the crowd they held fast and did not part. Instead, they tossed him back into the center. Vadim watched another tankard fly through the air, but this one found its mark and glanced off Jericho’s forehead. While not an incapacitating blow, it was enough to stagger the naked man. Jericho reached out to steady himself against a nearby spectator who shoved him down. Tree-like arms slipped around Jericho’s throat. It would take only one quick snap and the fight would be over.
The large man raged, “Most of you know me, but for those who do not, I am Otto Wilmot. My family has lived in Racein since before the Lichy. When everyone else fled to the larger cities, the Wilmots protected them and theirs. And when the plague had run its course, they helped rebuild with the rest of the survivors.
“Yesterday I married a woman before the town center. Under the statue of Rowan, we proclaimed our love as truth. The party which followed last night was a grand one indeed.”
The crowd bobbed their heads in agreement.
“And I must confess that both myself and my dutiful bride managed to imbibe much of the fine ale provided. I fear, in my drunken stupor, I failed to realize that my new wife did not return to my bed last night. She stumbled throughout this inn, clearly beyond her mind and this man… no, this wretch… he chose that moment to strike. He charmed her, brought her upstairs to his room, and defiled her!”
Jericho wheezed trying to explain but his captor tightened his grip.
“So I ask you, good folks of Racein, how do I answer this affront to the sanctity of my vows? Should I be content to extract my vengeance in bloodied knuckles and broken bones?”
Many in the crowd murmured amongst themselves. The early morning fog must have gripped them still, as they did not seem to understand the sermon’s purpose. Vadim understood all of it. Otto was not merely asking whether it was acceptable for him to kill Jericho, but asking the crowd to demand that satisfaction.
Vadim slipped through the throng, who had parted in an attempt to get a better look, and slid behind the combatants. Another stein, long since emptied, sat on the table beside him. He reached out and gripped the makeshift weapon. Otto continued,,, oblivious to the presence behind him.
“What say the lot of you? What judgment for this sinner?”
Vadim could see a few of the men did not care what the outcome was, but more of them were starting to realize the stakes presented to them. They might be a mindless lot, but they would never condone murder. But it only takes one…
From the rabble someone yelled, “Kill him! Teach a lesson to all the outsiders that our women are not their receptacles. We show them our hospitality and they abuse it for their own base needs.”
“Split his ‘ead open!”
Otto nodded. “Thank you, brothers. I am grateful you see the truth of the matter. If you deem it to be righteous and just I will act as your implement of destruction.”
Otto looked down at Jericho, whose face was tinted red as he groped and gasped for release. The enormous muscles flexed and seized around his neck.
“The Lichy may have spared your whore mother, and may have allowed you to enter this world, but I shall be the instrument that forces your exit. This insult will be met with righteous just-.”
Vadim brought down the large stein and shattered it on the back of Otto’s head. The blow was not enough to fell the giant man, but it did cause his grip to loosen. Jericho slipped out and crumpled to the floor, gasping for breath.
Vadim stepped out of the shadows, and pulled Jericho behind him. “This has gone on for long enough.”
The mob, for their part, did not know how to respond. They stood in shocked silence.
Otto did not possess that problem. He unleashed a guttural roar and spun around. In the same instant, Vadim released his sword from its sheath and placed it just under the man’s neck, freezing any further movement.
“My friend is sorry.”
Jericho had coughed his voice hoarse. “So very sorry. It was a misunderstanding.”
The giant rubbed the back of his head and took a step back. “You think you are going to stop me from exacting my vengeance?”
“Well, not only me, but this sword in my hand. Yes, I believe that changes the currency of this situation.”
“There is an entire room of men seeking justice here. Each willing to strike you down with a word from me. How is your sword going to stop them all?”
Vadim took a long look at the group still in the main room. Most of them had cleared out with the change of fortune, but he still counted eight, no nine including the lumbering hulk in front of him. Otto Wilmot might not understand what justice or consummating his wedding meant, but he was not so far wrong in his analysis of this situation.
Jericho’s legs were still a little wobbly, but he held a tankard as his weapon. The two of them, one naked, made for a laughable sight.
Perhaps, if we manage to escape with the better parts of ourselves intact, we could use this as great fodder for many a story in the future. For now, though…
“This sword does not need to stop all of them, only you. And do not doubt my word in that. You will be dead, gutted like a fish, before the first one of them reaches me. That is my promise to you.”
Traces of fear shifted through Otto’s features, but were gone just as quick. Vadim caught sight of it, and watched it vanish. His entire body steeled for the fight.
Emma! That was her name.
“Come on then.”
An ear-piercing whistle penetrated the room. Each and every man, including Otto, Vadim, and Jericho found himself wincing in pain.
In the doorway of the inn stood the Watch Commander, his King’s armor glistening in the morning sunlight. His wiry frame doubled in size under its weight. The grays in his beard were the only thing that betrayed his apparent age. No one in the company knew his exact age, and none ever felt the need to ask. Around his neck, a bronze chain held the instrument that caused their mutual pain. He let the whistle slip from his lips.
“I believe that I must be witness to some kind of elaborate competition. For that is the only reason I could possibly see citizens squaring off against King’s Men.”
Vadim stared into Otto’s eyes. Even with the Commander’s appearance, he did not dare lower his weapon. The entire room held its breath, waiting to see which way the winds blew this day. When there was no immediate answer, the Commander spoke again.
“Mayhap the patrons are deafened by my device as well?”
Otto spoke through gritted teeth. “I demand justice from this one.” He pointed at Jericho. “He defiled my wife.”
“Is this true?”
Jericho opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it, and nodded.
“It appears you have taken the measure of this man through your fists. He is bloodied and he is beaten, what else must you have for your sense of justice to be satisfied?”
“His death,” said Otto.
“Tis treasonous to assault one of the King’s Men. The answer for such a crime is death. You have already committed one crime this day. Yet I am an understanding man and am willing to forget this event in its entirety. Make no more trouble and be content in the knowledge that this man is on his way to the Long Ride, and as such, you will not see him again for many moons.”
The Commander stepped closer to Otto, and Vadim thought it strange that even though the larger man stood at least a head taller, he seemed to shrink when he gazed into the Commander’s eyes.
“Do we have an accord?”
Otto forced the words reluctantly past his lips. “Aye.”
He then began to move towards the inn’s entrance, “Come on, lads. These King’s Men are needed to protect the land from all sorts. Let’s let them get to their business.
“Though, there will be a day between you and I, naked man.” Otto never took his eyes off Jericho until he was out the door. “Believe in that.”
After Otto and his gang were gone, the Watch Commander turned his gaze on the two of them. “All this… the two of you are going to be the death of me, you realize that don’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” they spoke in unison.
“The squad is set to leave. Get your asses outside and on your horses.”
The Commander moved to leave, but paused and turned back to look at Jericho, shaking his head.
“And for God’s sake, put some clothes on!”