From outside came the rattle and clank of a cart arriving. Everybody else heard it too. The tension in the tavern seemed to change. It could be the Cobleighs. Here to establish their alibi, perhaps. Still with the sword to his throat, I dragged Jack from behind the bar and to the door of the inn.
“Nobody say a word,” I warned, “nobody say a bloody word and Jack’s throat stays closed. The only person who needs be hurt here tonight is he who took a torch to my father’s farm.”
Voices from outside then. I heard Tom Cobleigh. I positioned myself behind the door just as it opened, with Jack held as shield, the point of the sword digging into his neck. The silence was deathly and instantly noticeable to three men who were a fraction too slow to realize that something was wrong.
What I heard as they came in was Cobleigh’s throaty chuckle dying on his lips, and what I saw was a pair of boots I recognized, boots that belonged to Julian. So I stepped out from behind the door and ran him through with the sword.
You should have killed me when you had the chance. I’ll have it on my gravestone.
Arrested in the frame of the door, Julian simply stood and gawped, his eyes wide as he stared, first down at the sword embedded in his chest, then into my eyes. His final sight was of his killer. His final insult to cough gobbets of blood into my face as he died. Not the last man I ever killed. Not by any means. But the first.
“Tom! It’s Kenway!” came a shout from within the tavern, but it was hardly necessary, even for someone as stupid as Tom Cobleigh.
Julian’s eyes went glassy and the light went out of them as he slid off my sword and slumped into the doorway like a bloodied drunk. Behind him stood Tom Cobleigh and his son Seth, mouths agape like men seeing a ghost. All thoughts of a refreshing tankard and a satisfying boast about the night’s entertainment were forgotten as they turned tail and ran.
Julian’s body was in the way and they gained precious seconds as I clambered over him, emerging into the dark on the highway. Seth had tripped and was just picking himself up from the dirt while Tom, not stopping to help his son, had hared across the highway heading for the farmhouse opposite. In a moment I was upon Seth, the blood-streaked sword still in my hand, and it crossed my mind to make him the second man I ever killed. My blood was up and after all, they say the first is hardest. Wouldn’t I be doing the world a favour, ridding it of Seth Cobleigh?
But no. There was mercy. And as well as mercy there was doubt. The chance—slim, but still a chance—that Seth hadn’t been there.
Instead as I passed I brought the hilt of the sword down hard on the back of his head and was rewarded with an outraged, pained scream and the sound of him sprawling, hopefully unconscious, back to the dirt as I dashed past him, arms and legs pumping as I crossed the road in pursuit of Tom.
I know what you’re thinking. I had no proof Tom had been there either. But I just knew. I just knew.
Across the roadway, he risked a quick glance over his shoulder before placing both hands to the top of the stone wall and heaving himself over. Seeing me, he let out a small, frightened whimper and I had time to think that though he was sprightly for a man of his years—his speed aided by his fear, no doubt—I was catching up with him, and tossed the sword from one hand to the other in order to vault the wall, land on two feet on the other side and sprint off in pursuit.
I was close enough to smell his stink, but he’d reached an outhouse, then disappeared from view. I heard the scrape of boot on stone from nearby, as though a third person was in the yard, and dimly wondered if it was Seth. Or perhaps the farm owner. Perhaps one of the drinkers from the Auld Shillelagh. Focused on finding Tom Cobleigh, I gave it no mind.
By the wall of the outhouse I crouched, listening hard. Wherever Cobleigh was, he’d stopped moving. I glanced to my left and right, saw only farm buildings, black blocks against the grey night, heard only the occasional bleating of a goat and the sound of insects. On the other side of the highway lights burned at the window; but otherwise, the tavern was quiet.
Then, in the almost oppressive quiet, I heard a crunch of gravel from the other side of the building. He was there, waiting for me, expecting me to come running recklessly from around that side of the outhouse.
I thought about our positions. He’d be expecting me from that corner. So, very slowly and as quietly as I could, I crept towards the opposite corner. I winced as my boots disturbed the stones and hoped the noise wouldn’t carry. I edged quietly along the side of the building and at the end stopped and listened. If I was right, Tom Cobleigh would be lying in wait at the other side. If I was wrong, I could expect a knife in my belly.
I held my breath, then risked a peek around the side of the outhouse.
I’d judged right. There was Cobleigh at the far corner. His back was to me and in his fist was a raised knife. Waiting for me to appear, he was a sitting duck. I could have reached him in three quick strides and slipped my blade into his spine before he had a chance to fart.
But no. I wanted him alive. I wanted to know who his companions had been. Who was the tall, ring-wearing man able to stop Julian from killing me?
So instead I disarmed him. Literally. I darted forward and I cut his arm off.
Or, that was the intention, at least. My inexperience as a swordsman was all too obvious, or was it simply because the sword was too blunt? Either way, as I brought it down two-handed on Tom Cobleigh’s forearm, it cut his sleeve and burrowed into the flesh, but didn’t sever the arm. At least he dropped the sword.
Cobleigh screamed and pulled away. He grabbed at his wounded arm, which jetted blood across the wall of the outhouse and onto the dirt. At the same time I saw a movement in the darkness and remembered the noise I had heard, that possible other presence. Too late. The shadows delivered a figure into the moonlight, and I saw eyes blank behind the hood, work-clothes and boots that were somehow too clean.
Poor Tom Cobleigh. He never saw it coming and virtually backed onto the stranger’s sword, pinned as the new arrival thrust his blade into his back and through the front of his rib-cage, so that it emerged dripping blood. He looked down at it, a grunt his final worldly utterance before the stranger flicked his sword to one side and his corpse span from the blade and thumped heavily to the dirt.
There is a saying, isn’t there? My enemy’s enemy is my friend. Something like that. But there’s often an exception to the rule and in my case he was a man in a hood with a blood-stained sword. My neck was still stinging from the mark of his ring and my face still throbbed from his fists. Why he’d killed Tom Cobleigh, I had no idea and didn’t care; instead with a warrior’s roar I lunged forward and the shafts of our swords rang like bells in the quiet night.