Throne of Darkness
HOB OPENED THE SIDE DOOR of the tavern, stepped out into the squalid alleyway, and threw himself violently to the right. A faint rushing sound as the shaft of the cudgel clove the air, a glimpse of movement at the lateral extreme of the eye’s ability—something had warned him, and thus the blow struck his shoulder, and that already moving away, so that he suffered no real injury, just shock and dismay.
He had a chaotic blurred vision of the wall opposite—whitewashed daub peeling away from the wattle, urine stains—dim-lit in this tunnellike passageway, the two buildings so close together, sagging toward each other at the upper storeys, the eaves almost touching. Then he was down in the mire of the alley, rolling frantically away from his attackers, toward the rear of the inn. He planted a palm in the muck and used his momentum to roll up to his feet, as Sir Balthasar had taught him, a trick of the Norman knight to recover when unhorsed, or when the horse was killed beneath him. Even as he regained his feet he was running backward a few paces. He ripped his dagger from its leatherbound birchwood sheath and staggered to a halt.
The youth found himself facing a small band of grown men. The alley—just a walkway, really, between the two buildings—was so narrow that only two could come at him abreast, and he had an instant to take in an impression of several shadowy forms behind the two leaders. The one with the club was on Hob’s left; beside him was a knifeman. Behind them were perhaps four others; perhaps five. The group, recovering from the failure of its ambush, was beginning to advance again, the ones in front gauging the danger the young man’s dagger presented, the ones behind urging attack.
Jack was inside the inn, but Hob had not had time or breath to call out, and his attackers were rapidly closing with him. A vision of Nemain flitted before Hob’s eye: she had shown him some of Molly’s battle sleights, and one involved her leaping at a boulder in a field, planting a foot, and bouncing off the stone to achieve a rapid change of direction in an attack.
Now Hob looked hard at the knifeman, on his right, and with a loud wordless cry ran at him. Three paces short of closing with the bravo, Hob sprang at the right-hand wall; his right foot struck it two feet above the alley dirt and he pushed off mightily, propelling himself leftward across the alley, landing in a crouch before the club-wielder. Hob’s left hand came up to catch the man’s wrist and check the cudgel’s downward progress; his right hand also came up, up, the dagger-point leading, sliding beneath the man’s rib cage, piercing his heart. The club-man froze, struck dead by this internal thunderbolt, and fell back, his body tangling in the legs of the men behind.
The bravo in the lead with the knife now swung backhand at Hob, a weak blow, an awkward blow, and dealt the young man a shallow cut on the shoulder. But Hob was already moving back, resetting his feet, weaving his dagger this way and that, seeking an opening against the lead attacker, as Sir Balthasar had taught him. His youth, his strength, and his reach of arm, coupled with intense instruction from one of the most formidable knights of the North Country, had made Hob a match for even a grown man, even a hardened thug.
But there was no chance of his living through an encounter with a half-dozen men. “Jack!” he bellowed, as loud as he could. At that moment the rearmost of his enemies gave a truncated yelp; his head was snapped partway around, and he toppled over onto his back. The group halted its advance, and the bravos turned to see what threatened them from the alley front, all except the lead knifeman, who did not dare take his eyes from Hob’s blade, swaying this way and that, an adder preparing its strike.
Another man went down toward the rear. Hob heard the thud but was himself unable to take his eyes from his immediate adversary. A moment later the inn door banged open and Jack, a horrid gargling roar erupting from his ruined larynx, crashed into the group, pounding the first man he met into unconsciousness with a giant fist to the back of the neck, scooping the dropped cudgel from the ground, laying about him with irresistible fury.
Hob’s attacker, unnerved, allowed himself to be distracted, a fatal mistake. Hob lunged. His right leg went out before him, his knee bent; his right foot planted itself well ahead of his body; his right arm speared straight toward the man’s throat, the outstretched dagger tearing into muscle, artery, windpipe: an irreparable injury, the door to death flung open. The bravo’s eyes widened in horror; he dropped his own knife to grasp his neck; he sank down, dying.
Hob looked about him. Jack stood in the middle of several men, one unconscious, the rest dead or dying in the mud of the alley. Beyond him, holding a cord of gray silk on which hung a gold coin, stood the grim form of Sinibaldo, “the shadow of the shadow of Innocent III,” whom Hob and Jack had met only that morning.