Thieves Castle, Chapter I
The man’s feet slid in the muck as crossed the open space of the laneway, the darkness yawning moist and thick around him. He leaned against the corner post panting, his breath harsh in the silence of the street. An unsheathed dagger glinted in one hand. The man glanced around, eyes straining at the darkness.
Ivy Lane stank. The smell was a mix of urine, dung and the foul rancid stench of offal drifting down from the butcher’s yards north of Newgate Street.
Then man pushed himself away from the corner and turned hastily down the lane. The night was heavy and the darkness near complete, lit only by a handful of window candles and the dim yellow light of a small lamp hung outside one dark doorway. Although the lane was cobbled, the stones were greasy with the accrual of filth and the endless tread of daytime commerce. The man paused, hearing the faint echo of feet behind him, the sound uncertain.
He cursed to himself and began to move down Ivy Lane with as much speed as the darkness and the uncertain footing allowed. He held the dagger at length in front of him, as though to hold the night at a distance. The sounds seemed closer.
He glanced around. The laneway was narrow, a typical London thoroughfare, overhung with jetties that exiled the sky into a narrow strip and made the already oppressive darkness of the night into a stygian gloom. A flare of torchlight sent a set of shadows racing away as someone passed the corner he had vacated. The light sent the man scurrying away, no longer mindful of the slippery footing. He caught a faint gleam of a bare blade in the glowing light of the torch.
“Find ‘em lads, winnow him out.” The faint voice sounded amused.
The man cursed again and ran down the street, one hand outstretched, bumping along the irregular walls of the laneway. Another flicker of light in the distance ahead of him, coming from Paternoster Row and the distant bulk of St. Pauls.
“Coads.” The man muttered and pressed himself into the wall, shaking. The men were getting closer.
“Stay still.” The voice was soft but firm. A dim yellow light emerged from the doorway to his right, carried by a young woman. Her hair was short and dark. She stepped out and hung the lantern on a sign bracket above the narrow doorway. She pointed at the darkened alcove to the left of the door, almost hidden by the thick cornerbeam of the house. “Go there.”
The man wiped his face and nodded, sliding into the welcome darkness of the alcove like a lover’s embrace. He listened as the sound of footsteps grew more distinct. He could see the red flicker of the torch against the wall as they drew near, the shadows dancing back and forth with drunken abandon. He shrank back, feeling the rough timber frame digging into his spine. He listened.
“Bit late for punk trade, isn’t it.”
“Codso, you lot out looking for sheep?” the girl said in a tired voice. “what’s this rag and tag?”
“You seen a man? A blood?”
She laughed. “Likes of them in Ivy at this time of night? Not tonight. Any of your ruffler’s in coin?”
“Piss off cunt, we’re busy.”
“Fuck you, you buggering cockless bastards, go find yourselves some rent-boy’s arse.” The torchlight flickered and began to move away. The man hidden in the alcove let out a long sustained breath of relief as the footsteps faded away. The girl continued to berate the party’s retreating backs until they disappeared.
“You can come out.”
The man emerged cautiously, his eyes flinching as he scanned the length of the street.
“That lot’s gone.” The girl said. She canted her head at the man and surveyed him up and down with a practiced eye. “What’d they want you for?”
“No idea love. They came at us when we left the tavern.” The man shuddered at the recollection. He had stood mute and stunned as he watched his two friends beaten into the mud and only when the steel had gleamed red did his drink-befuddled reflexes send him careening away as fast as his legs could carry him. He felt his throat choking with bile.
“Here” The dark-haired girl handed him a wineskin. He tilted it back and gulped a mouthful of thin, acrid wine. As he wiped his mouth, he looked at the girl again in the lantern light. Her hair was short and dark, barely past her ears. She wore a long dress with the bodice bare and loose, the swell of her breasts clearly evident. The stays on the dress were untied, allowing the top to flare open, giving the man a tantalizing glimpse of a lean length of untrammeled flesh. The girl tilted her torso back and the tip of one nipple slid out from underneath the thin fabric.
“Why don’t you stay with me for a time, until your hunters wear themselves out?” The man felt one hand brush along the front of his breeches, pressing against the hardening length of his member. His breath caught. His eyes closed as her grip tightened.
“That may be the wisest choice…” the man breathed. Her hand slid around his waist and she slowly turned him, her dark eyes locked on his, her mouth open like a wet promise. He slid his hand down between her thighs and the thin material left little to the imagination. Maybe it was due to the terror of being hunted through the nighttime paths of London but the girl‘s touch made his pulse hammer and his desire quicken. She smiled, a brazen smile of anticipation and lust.
It felt like a thump and a sharp tightness against his right side. He stopped in puzzlement. The girl continued to look at him and gave a slight half-smile as hot pain coursed through him.
“I.., what..?” The girl continued to smile. He felt her brace herself for an instant and then push her right hand against the handle of the long poniard that protruded from his side. He staggered, one hand grasping at the girl. He felt his numbing fingers trail over the hardening nipple of her breast but his lust was overtaken by overwhelming weakness that made the dark alley swim. A sick feeling of horror flooded through him and he reached for her. She laughed and easily deflected his hand, tugging on the handle of the dagger, steering him lurchingly away from her. “You…” his words were incomplete, lost in a red wave of searing pain that seemed to swallow his thoughts.
“Over here, come with me.” She crooned in an encouraging voice, one guiding hand on his back and one on the dagger handle, as though driving some farm animal to market. He took a staggered step and then the girl grasped the dagger handle tightly and twisted it with harsh strength. The man felt a tugging sensation and his insides turned to liquid, as though he drunk a skinful of hot spiced wine in one swallow. He could feel the cold length of the steel perforating his flesh, ripping into his bowels and belly. His breath roared in his ears and his eyes filled with tears. The lantern wavered and blurred.
He was on the ground, mouth tasting of blood, fingers grasping at the thin layer of muck that coated the cobbles. The torchlight flared again and he stared upwards at the girl’s intent face. She wore a pleased expression like she had made some fresh discovery.
“Want me to finish him?” One of his hunters stood beside the girl, holding the torch and looking down at him with a bemused expression.
“No, I want to watch him go. You would spoil my fun Bent.” She smiled. Bent’s eyes flickered at the girl with a measured look and then back at the dying man stretched across the muddy stones of Ivy Lane.
Bent nodded in careful acquiescence. “Can’t have that.” Bent reached down and ripped the blade free and the man felt a calescent, diffuse sensation spreading through his body, as though he had pissed himself. His blood was dark as night in the glow of the torch. He watched it puddle across the greasy cobbles. “Leave this on him when he’s done.” He handed her a small object. She nodded absently and lowered herself over the supine man’s groin, settling herself upon him, eyes fixed on his face, knees on the wet cobbles, unmindful of either dung or bloody rivulets, her expression almost rapt in the flickering torchlight, watching his eyes as the man cried in pain and fear and bled to death in the dank confines of Ivy Lane.