Two of the men were guards that were much the same as the two beaten up back in the study, though neither were blue skinned. Their leader, however, was a different story.
He, too, was obviously a foreigner, marked by his chocolate skin. Handsome and athletically built, he swaggered with an air of command and the confidence of a man who always gets what he wants. His blue uniform was nicer than that worn by his grunts, with a gold hawk threaded into the left breast. At his hip was belted a short sword in a white scabbard, one that looked worn from use. The predatory gleam in his eyes, feral smile, and the way that his fingers constantly flexed over the pommel of the weapon made it clear just how badly he was itching to use it. This seemed like a man who enjoyed causing pain. He didn’t look alarmed that his employer was collared and being kidnapped; he looked eager to do something about it.
Arwin and the others immediately turned to run back into the house, only to find the two previously injured guards already in the foyer and coming towards them. One still had his club and the other had armed himself with a poker from a fireplace. The rebels froze.
Harl released Azamont and levelled his own club at the guards coming out of the house. “Fuck. We’re surrounded.”
Arwin pushed Aoi behind him and squared off with the trio in front. He silently cursed. Looks like they weren’t getting out of this without another fight, and this time there were really lousy odds.
The guard leader with the hawk crest spoke mockingly. “Sorry, folks. The best schemes laid by mice will always fail in the presence of real men.” Hawk cast a brief glance over Aoi and Harl before dismissing them and fixing his eyes on Arwin. “Looks like the boy toy was right. Seems you’ve somehow managed to get your hands on our employer there. How about you hand him over, nicely, and we promise not to kill you? In fact, you can walk away right now and we won’t even chase you.” He waved towards the nearby forest.
Arwin snorted, body tense. “No offence, but you don’t really look like the type to let prey just waltz away.”
Hawk threw back his head and laughed. “True! Get ‘em, men!” he shouted, then stood back and allowed the other guards to charge.
Arwin had to trust that Harl would at least slow down the two guards behind him while he worried about the two in front. He allowed both to get close, then faked a charge at the one on the left. It worked; the one on the left pulled up, giving Arwin time to take on the one on the right.
The right guard swung at Arwin’s head without slowing.
As he had in the study, Arwin ducked under the wild swing. Unfortunately, this time it just clipped the side of his head and the heavy instrument sent him staggering to the side, dizzy and in a world of pain. Stars exploded in his vision.
The guard laughed and swung again.
Desperate and dazed, Arwin threw himself forward, inside the swing, and caught the man’s uniform on the chest with both hands. He spun around and then blindly flung the guard at the one who had hesitated.
The two collided and fell back.
In that brief opening, Arwin dashed forward and punched the closest one as hard as he could in the jaw. Or at least what he hoped was the jaw. His vision was not clearing quickly.
There was a sharp crack and the man sagged.
Arwin felt blood on his scalp and, head pounding, had to concentrate to focus. He snatched the club out of the falling guard’s hands. Clumsily, he swung it at the remaining guard several times.
The guard, off balance, tripped backwards, unharmed.
Arwin spun and raced back to the others. He saw one guard wrestling with Harl, who now had blood running down his chin from a badly split lip. The other guard had a fist full of Aoi’s long, black hair.
Leaping into the air, Arwin side-kicked the chest of the man holding Aoi and both fell to the ground, almost crushing the women underneath them. Arwin scrambled up and struck the guard in the shoulder with his club.
Yelping in pain, the guard backed off. When Arwin feinted at the one fighting Harl, he too, abandoned his fight and retreated.
Behind, the guard Arwin had left grabbed hold of his downed fellow and dragged him to safety, back next to the leader.
Arwin and Harl protectively stood over Aoi. Harl swooned, going down to one knee, the bleeding from his lip bad. Arwin didn’t feel like he was in much better shape.
Harl looked up and grimaced, panting. “I can run. Jus — just give me a minute to catch my breath.”
Arwin shook his head at the ridiculous idea. The man was in no shape to run, especially with pursuit. “Aoi. Try to help him.”
She nodded and started work on tearing another strip from the bottom of her dress. To her credit, while she looked frightened at the violence all around her, she also looked determined.
Arwin took stock of the situation. Four guards stood at the ready, only one down so far. Harl was hurting and Aoi no athlete. Arwin was essentially going to have to fight alone.
Negativity wormed its way into his brain. It would be so easy for him to run away on his own right now. He could turn around and escape and he’d save himself, leave the others to some dark fate. Maybe Aoi had been right: what was he doing fighting for strangers? Why was he putting his life on the line for a cause that wasn’t even his own?
In his mind’s eye, he pictured the cafe, with Kelli and her new rich guy wrapped around each other. That damned kiss. It still hurt to think about it.
Anger flared in his heart at the unfairness that selfish people brought about in life. At the way that greed twisted people who might otherwise have been good. And the way so many of us suffer because of it all.
It had been the same with his career. Why did some self-centred shark in a suit peddling junk that we don’t need get paid so much more than a caring teacher who was supporting the next generation? Why did everything in life cost so much, like his apartment, his phone, his food? Everyone was selfishly trying to get rich, placing constant pressure on everyone else in society so that we all had to scramble day after day just to stay above water.
Back home, he’d felt powerless to do anything about the ‘system’ and self centred people leaving pain in their wake. It seemed overwhelming, society too big to change. But here, right now, he could fight back. And all his anger came violently boiling forth, wanting nothing more than to strike back at evil and punish it.
Arwin took Harl’s club from him and faced the leader with one in each hand, while keeping the two guards closer to the house at the edge of his vision. “Had enough?” he asked.
Hawk laughed. “Look at you! Throwing these lugs around like they were made of paper, huh? I love it when they put up a fight.” With deliberate slowness, he drew his sword. The blade caught the light as he raised it. “Now, let’s try this again, shall we?”
The other guards hesitated until the leader was clearly going to be the first to reach the rebel trio, then cautiously moved in.
Arwin felt his chest tighten. What the hell was he supposed to do in a situation like this? He’d never faced a man with a sword before. Hell, this was already the most fight he’d ever been in before.
The leader’s blade seemed to dance as it came closer.
That weapon was obviously going to be the biggest problem. Arwin pulled his right arm back and whipped one of his clubs at the leader, as hard as he could.
The move caught the leader by surprise and he tried to dodge but the club nailed him in the chest.
Arwin used that moment to tear his shirt off. Because, you know, fan service for the lady present. No, not really. He wrapped the cloth around one hand, letting the bulk of the shirt dangle free. He had a crazy idea.
The leader’s smile faded away. Hand on his shoulder, he winced. His prey had hurt him and he didn’t like that. He lunged for Arwin, the tip of his sword aimed at Arwin’s chest.
Arwin backed up out of range and desperately flung his shirt at the blade. The fabric managed to twist around the sword and tangle it up.
The leader, not expecting this either, tried to disentangle his weapon.
Arwin dove in, swinging hard with his club in the other hand, making it look like he was aiming for the leader’s head and getting him to duck away, then landing the blow on the man’s forearm.
The leader cried out. The sword fell to the ground.
Dropping his shirt, Arwin dropped down to one knee and took up the sword just as the guards closed in.
Arwin, of course, had never killed anyone. He’d never even hurt anyone on purpose, in any serious way, and didn’t want to. But this was self defence, and he strongly suspected that this was life or death for all of them. This wasn’t the world he was from, with law and order and such. Given the chance, these guys were going to cut him to pieces — literally. Outnumbered and outmatched, he had no choice but to try to take out as many as he could lest they overwhelm him.
Staying low and swinging while on one knee, he swept the sword to the side with all his strength and felt it deeply bite into the knee of the guard on his right. Fending off the guard on his left with his club, Arwin stood and took a hard blow to the back from another club, right where he’d been struck earlier. He grunted, in serious pain, but forced himself to swing the sword hard at the leader in front of him. He missed though, and both guard and the leader retreated.
Turning around, Arwin saw the guard who’d hit him from behind now hauling both Harl and Azamont away. He stepped forward, intent on saving his comrade, only to realize that doing so would leave Aoi unguarded. Frowning, he stood his ground over the young woman, warily watching the men on both sides.
Harl tried to put up a fight, but another blow to the head from the guard had him senseless. He fell to all fours.
Azamont stood quietly, making no move to help or hinder, only doing what he was told.
Three of the enemy remained: the leader and a guard on one side, and one guard with Harl and Azamont on the other. The first guard that Arwin had taken out with a punch still lay in a heap, eyes rolling, while the one he’d struck with the sword lay only a step away, screaming and bleeding, his knee ruined.
The leader scowled at the sight of his own sword in enemy hands, but cast a look at the two now in their custody and chuckled, regaining his confidence. He mock-bowed to Arwin. “Well done, for an amateur. Look at you, taking out two of my men, and even taking my weapon. Although, from the way you’re holding it, you don’t have the first idea of how to use a sword. And I’m actually better with these.” He reached behind his back and pulled out a pair of wicked-looking knives with blades as long as his forearms. “Shame; looks like I’m still gonna win.” He laughed and twirled the knives in his hands, then circled around Arwin until he reached the others. Fingering the collar on Azamont’s throat, he looked thoughtful.
Arwin, breathing hard and feeling every ache and pain from his head and back, had no doubt that the man was the type who would be thinking about a double cross at that moment. Why rescue the noble when you could just take him for everything now that he was collared?
There was all that gold back in the chateau. Arwin had the key in his pocket. Should he try to bribe the man? It was worth a try. He’d been lucky so far in the fight but that was probably about to come to an end if they went another round.
Aoi stood up on shaky legs. She glared at the leader and the guard standing over Harl. Unfortunately, her only weapon was a riding crop. She looked ready to fight though, and you had to admire the young woman’s courage.
Arwin took a glance around. She’d be able to reach the forest and escape on her own, if he gave her time. And, maybe if he didn’t have to protect her, he could get to Harl. Then again, one of those guards would probably just chase her down while Arwin was busy with the others. And really, what hope did Arwin have against the guy with the knives? He clenched the sword until his knuckles were white.
The leader shrugged, apparently deciding against a double cross. “Bah, too risky, I think. Best get this off him then.” He spoke to the guard standing over Harl while sheathing one knife. “Hold him down. We need a blue tooth.”
Harl yelled and fought as the leader brought his knife to the old man’s mouth.
Arwin took two steps in that direction before noticing movement to the side.
The lone guard in that direction was coming hard for them, club raised.
A flash of the sword drove the guard back.
“Hey,” Arwin called to the leader, growing desperate. “I’ve got the key to his safe. Let us go and it’s yours.”
The leader chuckled. “Nah. Nice try, but I already figured that course is no good. I’d rather not be branded a thief and have to look over my shoulder for the next ten years.”
“You won’t have to,” Aoi insisted. “We’re bringing all the nobles in the Blue Region down. Help us do that and the gold is yours. There’s enough to live like a king in there.”
“More trouble than it’s worth. Besides, as if a bunch of buffoons like you will be able to take down all the blue bloods. You’ll fail. And then this guy and those like him will retaliate. It’s what they do to discourage this sort of thing in the future. I prefer an easy life without having to worry about the law being after me. Or assassins coming for the money I took.” He forced Harl’s jaw open and bloodily gouged a tooth from the old man’s mouth, then freed Azamont.
Watching the old man suffer, Arwin hated his helplessness. And the situation was only getting worse. He watched as the man he’d punched earlier finally rose up on unsteady legs and rejoined his fellow. Now it was four on two, though Aoi probably wasn’t going to be able to do much with only a riding crop.
Azamont came to himself. He tore the collar off and threw it to the ground. His eyes blazed with fury. “You ungrateful, fucking peasants. You think you can treat your betters this way and get away with it?”
“Betters?” Aoi mocked, though her voice wavered. “Where?”
Azamont sneered at her. “I see you’re in need of a lot more training before being worthy of—“
Aoi cut him off. “I’ll never be one of your belles. Never.”
“Is that so?” Azamont mused. Mulling something over for a few moments, he regarded both Aoi and Arwin, and spared a half, dismissive glance for Harl at his feet, before his eyes roamed over the remains of the guards, and their injuries. When he caught sight of the files in Aoi’s hand, his eyes narrowed and his demeanour changed. “Well, enough violence for today. No need to make anything worse here, is there? I see you have some of my things. I can’t imagine they’re all that important, but you can hand them over and then go on your way, both of you, unharmed. You can even take this worn out old thing here with you, too.” He nudged Harl with a toe.
Aoi managed a laugh. “I don’t think so. I think I’ll keep these, they being the deeds to your house and land and all.”
The blue blood’s face reddened. “And how much is it going to cost me to take them off your hands?”
Aoi threw him a look of contempt. “As if you could buy me off. That’s always the first thing you scum resort to, isn’t it? It won’t work on me. My freedom is worth more than all the gold in that oversized house. Besides, you can’t pay anyone anything while we have the key to the safe.”
Azamont’s face twisted in rage. “Enough of this nonsense. Kill them! Now!”
The guards stormed in. Once again, the leader was willing to let his lackeys go first and absorb any damage.
Arwin swung club and sword, trying to keep Aoi behind him. He cracked one skull hard enough that it might have killed from the way the guard practically melted to the ground. Another he slashed across the face, taking him completely out of the fight. That was two more guards down. But he took several hits to the body and arms along the way, getting even more beat up.
Hawk came fast, twin knives in motion.
As Arwin defended himself against the leader and his twin knives, the remaining guard wrestled Aoi away, the girl kicking and screaming. Arwin threw himself after them and cut the guard badly in the back of the neck, but Hawk pushed him back and the guard dragged Aoi off.
“Arwin!” she called, frantic. She bit and clawed, but to no avail.
The leader backed off, leaving his injured or dead men behind.
The guard holding Aoi swayed and fell over, his torso drenched in blood from the neck wound Arwin had given him.
Aoi tried to escape but Azamont kicked her in the stomach and took hold of the back of her dress.
Despite being the only enemy left, Hawk sneered. “Looks like you keep losing. I’ll give you credit for being able to hurt so many of these pathetic louts I got saddled with but, to be honest, they’re a pretty rag tag bunch, so don’t go getting a swollen head. Still, you lost the old guy, then Lord Azamont, and now the papers and the girl, one after another. Loser.” He laughed.
“Stop bantering like a child and kill him,” Azamont commanded. “Then cut the throats of these two. I have no need of cattle that don’t understand their true place in life.” He looked down at Aoi and Harl and snorted in contempt.
But the leader was wary of Arwin now. He kept his distance, knives at the ready. Perhaps Arwin was only an amateur fighter, but he was doing well enough so far thanks to his athleticism.
Azamont slapped Aoi across the face. “Remember doing that to me, wench?” He slapped her a few more times. “I’ll teach you to lay your hands on a noble.”
“Don’t fucking touch her!” Arwin shouted.
The blue blood hauled back on her hair until her neck was bent at a painful angle and looked over at Arwin. “Give yourself up,” he told Arwin. “Maybe I’ll consider letting this bitch live. We can put a collar around her throat instead of cutting it. I’m sure we’ll find some use for her then.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then I’ll just kill her myself, shall I?”
“I might not survive the attempt but I’m pretty sure that if you try that, I can kill you before he kills me,” Arwin replied, nodding in the mercenary leader’s direction.
The blue blood huffed in disbelief.
The mere chuckled. “Yeah, you might just. But I’ll definitely gut you like a pig for it.”
“If we’re all gonna die, then at least I’ll take the sadistic, rich fuck with me.” Arwin noticed movement at Azamont’s feet but was very careful to keep his eyes on Hawk. He detected a nod. With a barbaric cry, he charged.
The merc’s eyes lit up and he grinned. His knives flashed.
Arwin threw his club.
This time, the leader guessed what was coming and flinched aside. Not that the throw was anywhere near him.
Because Arwin had been aiming for Harl.
The club landed on the paving stones and skipped into Harl’s arms. The old man snatched it up, heaved himself to his feet, and attacked Azamont.
Arwin had no time to watch. The leader met him, knives slashing, and Arwin found himself in the fight of his life, hard pressed and back peddling fast to stay out of reach. With only the sword, it was all he could to do try and knock the leader’s attacks away. He had no hope of striking back.
Hawk, sensing his advantage, ran hard at Arwin.
The sword got knocked sideways and Arwin threw himself backwards to evade the deadly steel. In doing so, he lost his balance and fell to his backside on the stone.
The mercenary grinned and kicked the sword out of Arwin’s hands.
Aoi darted away from the others. She grabbed a stray club from the ground.
Hawk bent low to stab Arwin.
Gripping the club tight in both hands, Aoi ran up behind the mercenary and smashed the iron end into the back of his skull. One, twice, three times, with all her might.
Hawk crumpled and knives dropped from nerveless hands.
Arwin looked up at Aoi in amazement. “Thank you.”
She stood over the dead man, staring at the bloody mess that was the back of his head. Her hands began to shake.
Arwin got to his feet, feeling his whole body ache and went to her. He placed a hand on weapon and gently took it away. “It’s ok. You’re ok.”
She looked up at him, face pale and blinking, then seemed to return to herself. She nodded once. “I’m fine.”
They turned to see that Harl now wrestled with Azamont.
Arwin rushed over and together they subdued the noble and re-collared him. With the fight over, he sank to ground, breathing hard, thankful they’d all survived, by some miracle. “Good job, both of you.”
Harl slumped in place and lay on the ground next to Arwin. “I’m too old for this shit,” he groaned.
Aoi picked the riding crop up from the ground, picking her way amongst the fallen guards. She took the papers from Azamont’s hands and back-handed him with the crop. “Look how many more people were hurt because of you. You’re going to wear that collar for the rest of your miserable life to make up for it.”
Arwin caught her eye and grinned, relief flooding his body.
She grinned back.