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Attack of the Triad
The sharp-boned man with the black teeth was Roth. He breathed cheap ale into Johannes's face when he snarled, "All your money now, or you will be more holes than man."
Roth brandished a short sword in his right hand. The sword was well-made, probably Dutch, Johannes surmised. But it had not been well-cared for. It was grimy and littered with nicks. Its edges looked dull. It had probably not seen a whetstone in a longer time than Roth had seen a dentist.
Johannes studied the hand that held the sword. It was trembling slightly. He knew a few tales of Roth, shared with him by the king's knights. Roth had lived at least forty-five years, and he looked ten years beyond that. He was a man too old, and usually too drunk, to be a highwayman. At least a successful highwayman.
Beside Roth stood a plump man with bloodhound jowls and a mashed-in nose. Brooks was his name. Or was it Brookings? He was said to be as powerful as an ox, but he also fought with all the grace and cunning of one. He wore a dagger on his belt, and he wielded a wooden club in his big bear paw of a right hand.
Johannes didn't know the third man, the newest member of the Triad. He appeared to be the youngest of the three. He stood behind his partners. His tar-black hair was coiled tightly against his head. His face was red, like raw steak. Like Brooks, he wore a knife on his belt. The knife's leather grip looked new. Had it ever been used? He seemed to have no other weapon. And he did not seem eager to use the one he had. He was thin. His body showed little possibility of muscle.
Johannes surmised that Red Face must be the replacement for Two-Finger Tomas (formerly known as Four-Finger Tomas and Three-Finger Tomas). Tomas was currently occupying a narrow bunk in the jail of the Upper Kingdom. The Triad's membership was ever changing. Only Roth was a charter member. During the past year alone, the rest of the cast had turned over half a dozen times. Every few months, someone from the Triad was jailed, executed, or converted to faith.
Two years prior, Roth's younger brother had become drunk and tumbled down the steep wooden stairs of the Blackstar Inn. He died of a broken neck. He was on his way down those stairs to fight a local blacksmith, whom he believed to be laughing at his retreating hairline.
Occasionally, the band's number would swell to four, five, or even six, but the name remained Triad. This made them the butt of jokes, but the king's knights had warned Johannes to fear the Triad's mayhem, not its mathematics.
As Johannes sized up the men, he was grateful that the current band's number matched its moniker. It was almost impossible to escape a fight with four men or more without suffering significant injury. Even men as drunk and foolish as these.
He took two steps back from Roth's continuing stream of threats—and his rancid breath.
He stopped when he felt the trunk of a great oak tree against his back. The tree would be his ally, thwarting any attack from behind. Perhaps a branch would deflect a blow from Roth's sword or Brooks's club. Perhaps he could maneuver one of the men to stumble over the large Y-shaped branch lying nearby. When you were outnumbered, almost anything could be your friend. A tree stump. A startled yelp from a passerby. Even a handful of dirt, hurled into an attacker's eyes.
Johannes's own eyes flicked in all directions. Though its membership changed like the seasons, the Triad was known for a few constants. They were full of too much confidence and too much strong drink. But they were as violent as they were greedy. In recent months, they had allegedly killed a man. Allegedly. That was the only reason Roth was not dangling from a noose in the Upper Kingdom's town square. Or settling his square head onto the chopping block at Denton, the Lower Kingdom town where they preferred the axe to the noose when sending criminals to eternal judgment.
For a moment, attackers and victim were still, as if posing for a portrait. But this stillness, Johannes knew, would be fleeting.
A gust of wind drifted over the four men. Then the wind died, leaving an eerie silence. Johannes felt his morning breakfast, a loaf of dark bread with butter and honey, sitting in his gut like a brick. Sparks shot up his spine, as if he were being attacked by wasps.
Johannes knew this feeling like an old dueling partner: Fear. But he didn't fight the fear. He recalled his father's words, repeated year after year: "Do not be afraid to be afraid."
Fear had kept his nerves and reflexes alive. For that matter, fear had kept him alive. Through two revolts and the Great Mountain War. Through more duels than he cared to count. And through at least a dozen battles with criminal fools like these.
Johannes struggled to smooth the ripples of fear out of his voice when he spoke. "I have very little money," he offered, meeting Roth's eyes. "Little of anything, to tell the truth. But I will gladly give what I have. Those weapons are not necessary."
"They are," Roth said. He waved his dirty sword in front of his face. "They mean that you will give us everything. Starting with whatever is hanging from that thick silver chain around your neck."
Johannes's left hand drifted to his neck. He traced the outline of the silver cross with his forefinger. His right hand gripped his sword, resting in its leather sheath. He freed the cross and let it tumble against his white tunic.
"This cross," he said, dipping his head, "is a gift from my mother. My mother, who is ... gone now. You can have every coin I have, but you cannot have this. Let me give you my coins, and I will be on my way. I desperately need to continue to my destination."
Roth snorted. He turned his head to speak to Brooks.
Johannes struck. With his left hand, he swatted Roth's dull blade aside. The man's eyes widened. He didn't expect a bare-handed smack on his sword.
Opposite the point of Johannes's rapier rested a round iron pommel, the size of a child's fist. Johannes drew his sword and raised it over his head. He brought the pommel down hard. He caught Roth on the top of his head. He dropped to one knee, howling with pain.
Brooks bent over and tried to wrestle his partner to his feet.
Red Face stepped forward and drew his knife.
Johannes wielded his sword.
In his hand, the sword—a slim and graceful rapier—came alive. A striking viper with razor fangs.
Red Face lunged at him.
Johannes's sword cut through the air with a breathy whistle. The blow caught the attacker just under the jawbone.
The sword would have separated that florid head from its torso, had not Johannes turned his wrist at the last moment. Thus, the flat of the British steel blade struck Red Face, not its deadly edge. He crumpled to the ground as if his bones had been removed. He lay there, snoring, in a tangle of ropy limbs.
Meanwhile, Brooks had helped Roth stand. Roth squared off with Johannes once more, a lion snarl on his face. But he was swaying slightly, like a fern in a strong wind. Johannes lowered the point of his sword to the bandit's great bulging belly.
"One move," he warned, "and we will all soon discover what you enjoyed for breakfast."
Roth's angry face fell away like a cheap party mask.
"On your knees," Johannes commanded.
Roth swallowed and nodded his great brick of a head once. With some clumsy effort, he settled his knees in the dirt.
"Your sword," Johannes said.
Roth looked up at him, then laid his sword carefully on the ground. Johannes grabbed it and flung it like a discus into the trees.
Johannes then swung his head toward Brooks, the flat-nosed thief. He had taken a few steps back and was struggling to wrestle his knife from its sheath with his left hand while holding his club in his right.
"Stop," Johannes said.
The man bellowed with indignation and, with a mighty tug, freed his knife.
He charged, with flaming eyes. With his knife hand, he thrashed wildly at Johannes's throat. Johannes ducked. The knife cut an arc well above his head.
Johannes rose, deftly thrusting forth the heel of his left hand. He struck Brooks on the bridge of his mashed nose. He felt the crunch of cartilage.
The man dropped both of his weapons and sunk to his knees. He covered his wrecked nose with both hands. He snorted and snuffled like a truffling hog. When he removed his hands, Johannes saw blood leaking from both nostrils. Johannes almost felt sorry for him. Almost.
Johannes sheathed his sword. He stepped back to Roth, grabbed him by both shoulders, and yanked him to his feet. Then he held him firmly, as if he were a crooked painting that needed straightening.
Roth's eyes were cloudy and leaking at the corners. "Are you going to kill me?" he asked. "Kill us all?"
"I hope I will not have to," came the answer. "I have not needed to kill anyone in weeks. It would be nice to keep my blade clean. But, if you wish to live to see tomorrow, understand this: The Triad is over. Stay off of these footpaths. Stay out of the alleys of Denton and Bolsta and Hartwell. Learn to farm. Learn to juggle. Learn a new trade. Or you will die. Soon. If we meet again, pray that it will not be at the point of my sword."
Roth parted his cracked, flaking lips. "You will be our executioner?"
Johannes released Roth. "Perhaps. But what is sure is that I will be your king. Someday soon. My name is Prince Johannes, of the Two Kingdoms. I know you have heard of me. Son of Morgan the Merciful. But if you ever stand before me in the Hall of Judgment, do not expect mercy."
Johannes shoved Roth hard, and he tumbled to the ground again.
"I don't understand," Roth said. He seemed close to tears. "You do not dress like a prince. You look like no prince I've ever seen."
Johannes's head bobbed up and down. "I hear that a lot," he said.
And then Johannes proceeded down the footpath, toward a small house that held his future. As he walked, he shook out his sword hand, which was buzzing like it was full of bees. The price of striking to warn, not to kill, he thought. Being the son of Morgan the Merciful came with a price.
The wind was gathering strength again. It sounded like a whining dog. The Lower Kingdom town of Denton was still a mile away, and word was that, these days, only fools and criminals frequented the footpaths between the Upper and Lower Kingdom.
Johannes smiled. "Only fools and criminals," he whispered. "And the odd king-to-be."CHAPTER 2
Shelter from the Storm
After another quarter hour on the footpath, Johannes veered east, away from the footpath, and found the main road to Denton. He stepped carefully, minding the deep ruts left by the carts drawn by oxen or horses. You could snap an ankle bone if you did not mind your step. After several tedious minutes of picking his way, he abandoned the road for the footpath, which followed the same general course to Denton, albeit with more maddening turns.
The footpath was bordered by trees and dotted with large rocks, crouching like panthers. Ideal hiding places for highwaymen eager to relieve travelers of their gold, their cloaks, and, sometimes, their virtue. Johannes ran a finger along the swept-metal hilt of his rapier. The steel was as fine as a princess's skin.
He didn't expect another encounter this day, but if one came he was ready.
Two days prior, winter had returned for what Johannes hoped was one last dance. Snow fell, then melted. Great whacks of the footpath were a gummy black mess. The sun was out this morning, but it was small and pale and cold as a stone.
The trees he passed as he stepped around the worst of the mud were leafless and skeletal. Gaunt as beggars. And there was no sign of the jade spring grasses that his mother had loved.
As Johannes drew closer to Denton, he drifted by a large pasture, more brown than green.
In the pasture, a band of massive work horses stamped their hooves nervously. One of them raised its head and whinnied. Johannes smiled and nodded in return.
Near the horses, flies buzzed lazily around a horse pie the size of a cart wheel.
Just ahead of him, a wild dog bounded up a bald hill and sniffed the air. Johannes sniffed too, and the wind brought the fragrance of the moist earth to his nostrils. Soon, he would smell Denton. And that was at once a blessing and a curse.
Denton was a nameless little village to most of the world. The smallest of the three towns that made up the Lower Kingdom. And the most despised.
Hundreds of years before, limestone was discovered in the area. Eventually, a small community developed around the quarries, which were overseen by a towering man named Eron Denton. Most of the community's inhabitants were quarriers and their families.
As time passed, the limestone supply dwindled. The town, by then known as Denton, feared for its survival. And so the citizens allowed surrounding communities, including the sister cities of Bolsta and Hartwell, to use their abandoned quarry pits for the discarding of animal carcasses and other assorted garbage. For a reasonable fee.
Within a century, Denton was known for one thing: Garbage. More than half of its population worked at the disposal sites, or supported those who did. There was gold in garbage. The average Denton resident out-earned one from Bolsta or Hartwell by 25 percent.
But the financial success came with baggage. Foul and rotting baggage. To many people in the Upper and Lower Kingdoms, Denton was a joke. Mothers told their children, "Go bathe. You smell like Denton!"
Passing gas was known as "leaking a Denton."
A few of the more cruel residents of the neighboring towns would greet a Dentonite by extending one hand and plugging their noses with the other.
The city was mocked, but it was also feared, as a breeding ground for disease. "Denton Disease" became a catch-all for illnesses that ravaged the body and the mind.
Johannes heard the low rumble of thunder and looked skyward. A battalion of black clouds was forming. A gust of wind rushed at him, and he felt danger on its breath.
The smallest of the skeletal trees along the footpath bowed to this wind.
And then the storm hit, in full force. As sudden as a robbery in an alley. Rain blew at him sideways, whiplashing his face.
He ducked his head and quickened his step. Moments later, an icy blast caught him faceon and left tiny ice crystals in his well-trimmed cinnamon beard.
Johannes shook his head. Why did cold rain always fall the hardest? His eyes began to water, and the tears froze against his skin. He covered his ears with his hands, hoping to give himself a modicum of warmth.
He groaned when he tried to adjust his leather scabbard so he could walk more freely. His hands were bruise-purple and stubborn in their movements. If the Triad attacked me now, he thought, I would be as helpless as a newborn.
He wrapped his arms around himself, not caring how ridiculous it must look. This was not the posture of a king-to-be. This was the pose of a cold and scared child who needed his mother.
After several minutes, he felt that the storm was robbing him of everything that made him a man. He wanted to break into a run, like a race horse in the home stretch. Run until he found the house he sought—or until he froze and dropped dead on the footpath.
Presently, the rain turned to snow. The wind gathered even more strength.
He felt his teeth rattling like dice in a cup. His breath made round white clouds that grew larger with every few steps.
Then he saw it. The old farmhouse built of heavy stones and mud. Roof thatched with leaves, straw, and heather.
A coil of gray smoke rose from the chimney.
The royal messengers had found the house for him and provided a detailed description of the building and the surrounding property. To Johannes, this was the most important house in the Two Kingdoms, because it was her house.
The gathering snow muffled his footsteps as he turned on the narrow walkway that led to the front door. He wondered if his crunching footfalls could be heard inside. He stopped at the front door and rapped urgently with frozen knuckles. He was embarrassed at how bad it hurt. He had punched drunks in a tavern with less discomfort. Taverns were warm. So, usually, were drunks.
He wondered if Regine would jump in her seat at the sound of his fist on her thick wooden door. He stamped his frozen feet and tried to will away the shivering.
The door opened with a weary groan. There she stood, staring at him wordlessly. Hair red as embers, eyes dark as plums.
Excerpted from A King in Disguise by Todd Hafer. Copyright © 2014 Todd Hafer. Excerpted by permission of Worthy Inspired.
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