By Oliver Clayton
Benjin stood, gasped, then doubled over. A white hot pain shot up the right side of his torso, sharpening his vision and causing him to bite down, hard. The taste of iron touched the back of his throat. His nose was broken. He couldn’t feel his right hand. He tried to take a short, shallow breath but the pain returned and he dropped down to the floor, hunched and wheezing. He should really know better by now. There was an air of inevitability about his current situation. Regardless of the season, place or time, he seemed to invite trouble back into his life as if it were an old dog returning to its master's hearth. But he by no means welcomed it. It only complicated matters. Made them messy.
Having slowly shuffled up and down the bleak and barren coastline, drifted across the cold and sparse landscape, he’d come to recognise fairly early on that this would not be a place where trouble could be avoided. The various holdings and settlements that puckered the withered stretch of peninsula all shared the same prickly, suspicious and sometimes hostile inhabitants. Men and women who’d been forgotten by the regime. Mostly surviving as fishermen, clammers, or as stone breakers in the coastal mineral mines on the mainland. Some chanced the employment of the governance, joining the pseudo coastguard come militia for the district authority, being paid half the coin and receiving none of the perks saved for those serving under the great claret and gold banner. With so little in the pockets of those living here, so few resources and so little welfare or any form of aid, the people had naturally become incredibly insular and distrusting of outsiders. The traders from the western isles. The various smugglers and pirates that would often drop anchor in the caves and coves that littered the peninsula’s southern side. The rare, but incredibly brave, census collector and even the odd holy person, were all met with the same hard, unyielding, unrelenting expression. Lips hard pressed, jaw and fist both clenched in equal measure, eyes burning, and a stare that bore right to the depths of one's soul. The look of someone who had nothing more to give, but expected to be taken from all the same. The look of a people who will not go quietly into the long night. People who know how to hold a grudge.
He had underestimated the power that could give a person.
The men had been tracking him since he’d departed Haven’s End. After exiting the house via the door at the back, leaving the fire still sputtering as a mans last moments flickered, he’d made the most of the difficult terrain just to the south of the huddled village to mask his retreat. He then doubled back before snaking his way over to the mainland side of the peninsula. He’d taken one of the smugglers' paths, through the clawing bracken and thistle and sparse clusters of woodland, before snaking up and behind the ridge that served as the spine for this protruding land mass. It was here that he’d dared to look back for the first time since making his escape.
Peering down from his vantage point, in the fading light, he had made out their silhouettes, sleek shadows moving through the edge of the tree line. In that moment it was as if someone had wrapped him in a blanket of fear. It's cold embrace caressing his neck before slowly working its way down and through the rest of his body, until he almost forgot to breathe. He was sure he’d been discreet. Left no trail to be followed. But alas, someone must have seen something, for here they were, like hooded figures beckoning from across the void.
This wasn’t the first time Benjin had felt like this. It was, in fact, a feeling he was well accustomed with. And while some men might have scoffed and tried to shrug it off, he embraced it because he knew that it meant that he still valued his life. It meant he could access a part of himself that would see him through even the most dire of situations. And dire situations were not uncommon in his line of work.
The worn, rugged boots of his assailant were spattered with flecks of blood. Benjin could not tell who’s. As he pondered, the lightest of drops descended, breaking on the crest of the scratched steel toe cap before cascading down to meld with the battered brown leather. It would appear that he was leaking, but from where he could not tell. There was something that felt like a gash across his brow. His vision was misted. His breathing, laboured, but he was regaining control. He slowly raised his head, still huddled over on one knee, scanning the room and trying to gather what was left of his senses. All he had wanted was a drink. A warm drink by the fire. A chance to rest his weary body, to have bathed in some small semblance of peace, if only for a moment. Peaceful moments were hard to come by these days. Particularly as a snuff merchant. The unofficial arm of the governance’s military police; where a light needed dousing he was there to answer the call. Every now and then he might even be propositioned with a private contract, but this, while lucrative, breached the wafer thin layer of immunity that protected him to some degree if he was detained in action. Regardless, fantasy and fatigue had made him forget where he was. He was not out of the woods. He'd merely come to a break in the trees, and seeing the sky for the first time in what seemed like days he had momentarily let his guard slip.
After assessing his options he had slipped back below the ridge line, heading south, down towards the coastline. As darkness enveloped the landscape he’d made a makeshift bolt hole on the moorland, covering himself in dirt and whatever foliage was available to him. To say that he slept would be generous, and before too long he was off again, continuing south towards the caves and coves he knew he would find there. He had chanced another look back but could see nothing, and so pressed on, pricked again by the fear that drove him towards the light of the morning. In this way he’d continued for two more days, zig-zagging across unfamiliar and unforgiving terrain. He had cursed himself for not having made more time to get the lay of the land. A foolish mistake, but this job had required a quick completion, and hunger was a very persuasive motivator. He had thought that, maybe, maybe after a third day of running and hiding and covering his tracks that maybe they had relented in their pursuit. But that had been a grave error on his part. Optimism is reserved only for the pious and the blind. Not for men who take a blade as a bed fellow.
The town he’d eventually arrived at was one of the more put together settlements he’d come across, by virtue of its proximity to the land bridge that connected the peninsula to the mainland and the small harbour that housed a few fishing boats, two trade shops and a sole ferry. It was also one of the few places that the governance had cared to establish any sort of presence.There was even a wall, but it only protected the harbour side of the town. On the other side, a partially felled woodland stood before a solitary watch tower that served as the sole reminder that there was some semblance of authority here. It was through this woodland that he’d made his approach, and, unchallenged by the underpaid militia, he’d made his way through the ramshackle streets, sticking close to the town's periphery.
He first twisted, then tugged, grunting as pressed his foot hard into the man's sternum to help remove the hunting knife from the hole it had made just under the ribs. It was hard not to let out a cry, for the pain in his side was back and burning, but he managed to jostle the blade free, using the man's thick seal hide cloak to wipe off the blood and flecks of gore. As he rasped for air through shallow breaths, he gave the corpse a quick once over. He’d been lucky. The man was a brute. And for someone so big Benjin hadn’t heard so much as a whisper. He had appeared like death himself, and before Benjin had time to react he’d been plucked from the ground by his hair before being rag-dolled against a wall. Caught off guard, Benjin had barely had time to register what was happening before a slab sized fist had crashed into the side of his face, momentarily plunging his world into piercing white.
‘‘Stupid fucking bumper. I'm going to bleed you slowly.’
In the stunned darkness he’d felt his ribs crack. Probably the man's shin, but such was the force of the blow it felt like he’d been hit with a hammer. He had wanted to scream but there was no sound. His unofficial title reverberated around his head. For a brief moment his voice had been extinguished. He crumpled to the floor, shackled by pain. His mind racing, frantically searching for a solution, willing every fibre of his being to move.
The man’s breath tickled his ear.
He’d felt a pressure on the tops of his eyes and the back of his skull. He’d heard a chuckle
‘Time to say night night.’
He’d been lucky. As the bear man revelled in the role of executioner, Benjin had been gathering the little strength he could muster. He remembered how his head had been screaming as the man had lifted him to his face, how his eyes had registered the moment Benjin’s blade had sunk between his flesh, how the blood had dribbled down the hilt to his hand and felt warm. How he’d stabbed the man again, and again, and again as the grip on his head grew tighter still as he continued to cleave his way deeper and deeper and how the scream had drowned his senses and how the world had gone dark. He’d been lucky. He would need more luck still.
There was another still out there. As he hobbled down a side street he heard no one, saw no one. Most of the activity he could hear was taking place at the harbour. The majority of the town's inhabitants, he guessed, were out to work. And there must not be anyone patrolling the area because the brutes body would have been discovered by now. He was alone, wounded, pursued by a foe whose face he did not know nor care to find out. Whoever they were, they’d find the body soon enough, and even though he’d done his best to see to his own injuries, he was sure he was leaving enough of a trail for someone with enough cause to find.
His best bet was to head to the harbour. If he was stopped and questioned as to what had happened and how he had come to be… He simply couldn’t think that far ahead. Right all he could do was put as much distance between him and his foe as possible.
He barely encountered a single person as he stalked his way towards the harbour. The one or two he did see either pretended not to notice, or gave him a quick once over before hurrying off in another direction. He wasn’t sure if any of them had gone to warn the local authority. He wasn’t sure they even cared for his plight. One thing was certain, no one was going to help him. He was alone. And running out of time.
The bolt struck him as he rounded the last bend before the harbour wall. He could see the boats bobbing up and down as he was sent crashing to the ground. He lay there, sprawled face first on the ground, awaiting his doom. He felt that this time was surely the last. His right shoulder was numb. He presumed that’s where he’d hit, for the pain had dissolved into the overarching sensation he was currently fighting with. He tried to get back to his feet, but could only muster kneeling. He could feel his body beginning to fail him. Inside his head he could hear the panic begging to take over. He was no longer working with his fear, it was overtaking him, suffocating his senses and plunging him into despair. He wanted to cry, but the tears would not come. All he could do was kneel and wait.
Somebody's foot encouraged him towards the wall. He couldn’t even muster a whimper. He was merely a passenger now. Waiting for death to whisk him away. He was hoisted up to a seated position. The bolt in his shoulder was pushed a little deeper. He thought he let out a cry but couldn’t be sure. A hand lifted his chin. Eyes black as pitch bored into his.
This time the tears came. The figure stood, raising the crossbow till the bolt was level with his forehead.
‘If you could show some restraint it’d be greatly appreciated. You don’t want your last moments to be any less dignified do you?’
Benjin couldn’t stop even if he tried. He just sat there, sobbing.
The slap rattled his jaw.
The hand returned to his chin, lifting his head once more.
‘Goodbye bumper. This was going to happen eventually’.
He’d been lucky the mechanism had jammed. That he still had hold of his knife. That they were close enough for this to work. From under his cloak he threw the blade, sending it blade-over-hilt. As the knife nestled itself in the figure's throat. He heard them gag as they began choking on their own blood. They dropped the crossbow, desperately clawing at the blades hilt, eventually pulling it free. He saw the ground turn crimson. He saw them turn, hands clutching their throat, and run back into the town. He saw the puddled they’d left behind around his feet.
His head kissed the cool stone wall. He looked to his left, thought he heard voices. He dared not dream. He closed his eyes, hoping against hope, that he still had some luck left.