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Amurky haze hung over the narrow alleyways and squalid, rickety hovels in the secret world of St Giles—a wretched, brutal, frightening place, cramped, dark and noisy, where violence and death were an inescapable fact of life. The air was foul, and the humid, sweltering heat pressed down on its inhabitants—a churning crush of people, the flotsam of human life. These were thieves, cutthroats and beggars, painted harlots and scavengers, a ragged, unwashed assortment of men, women and children, most of them prematurely aged by poverty and hunger, their only recourse to be found in the gin shops. This tax-free liquor was in plentiful supply, its consumption endemic—a perfect antidote for dulling pain, replacing lost dreams and deepening despair.
Moving among the jostling crowd, Adam carefully scrutinised every face, searching for one that was familiar, unaware of the youth following him closely—a slight, inconspicuous-looking lad in shabby garb and a shapeless hat pulled well down over his ears, who nimbly danced out of his sight whenever he turned about.
Adam was so deeply engrossed in his mission that it was a moment before he reacted to the body suddenly thrust against him, and the pull at his watch. Clapping his hand to his chest, a vicious curse exploded from him when he found he had been relieved of his timepiece by somebody with the manual dexterity of a practised thief. He whirled in time to see a ragged urchin dart away. Immediately he gave chase, following him through a network of narrow alleyways.
Eventually the lad was delivered up to him by a couple of youths anticipating a reward. Tossing them a shilling apiece, Adam gripped the young thief's arm, ignoring his strangled squawk as he dragged him aside. He grasped the thin arm more tightly as the lad struggled against him, wincing and loosening his hold when he felt a boot rebound against his shin.
Slipping from Adam's grasp, in a blur of panic the youth turned to run, only to find a long booted leg thrust out, obstructing his path. Unable to check his momentum, he stumbled and fell, landing on his stomach in a mud puddle. His posterior pointing skywards, he lay for a moment winded and stunned, successfully managing to hold back tears of shame and humiliation that gathered in his eyes. Covered in mud and slime, he was heaved from his ignoble position by the seat of his breeches, and with a string of outraged curses he quickly danced away and whipped a knife from his belt, wielding it in front of him.
"I'll have your blood," he snarled, glaring at his abuser as ferociously as a wild animal.
Like lightning Adam drew his sword, placing the point at the lad's throat, locking eyes—the youth momentarily mesmerised by the terrible deadly grace of the stranger's swift manoeuvre.
"I wouldn't try it," Adam ground out, backing his captive into a corner. "Do not add murder to your crime. Lower your weapon and give it to me," he coolly ordered, "and slowly, if you please. I am far from amused."
Glowering out of a dirty face at him, breathing fast, his cheeks pink with a combination of rage and fear, reluctantly the youth did as he was told. Adam gave the knife no more than a cursory glance before sliding it down the top of his boot and sheathing his sword. "A nasty weapon for a boy," he remarked, his stern gaze raking the lad. "Very clever, you young guttersnipe. However, you should have studied your craft more and not allowed yourself to be caught."
Adam's fingers had bit painfully into the lad's arm, who now rubbed the offended member, still scowling up at the giant who loomed above him, looking very small and fragile now he had no weapon with which to defend himself.
"What's the matter?" Adam growled. "Afraid of the law, are you?"
"You hurt my arm," the lad snapped, his eyes narrowed accusingly.
"Rob me again and I'll hurt more than your arm, you young whelp," Adam promised direly. He held out his hand. "My watch, if you please."
The youth's clear blue-green eyes glared hotly back at Adam, and he continued to fidget beneath his close inspection. He felt anger towards the stranger for catching him, but most of his anger was directed against himself for getting caught. He was aware of the painful gnawing of his stomach, and the dinner the proceeds of selling such a fine watch would have provided—after Jack had had his cut.
"I repeat. Give me back my watch.'Adam's eyes narrowed when the lad remained mute, and there was a glint in his eyes that warned the youngster against pushing his luck further. Taking him by the front of his jacket with both hands, Adam lifted him so the toes of his ill-fitting boots barely brushed the ground, thrusting his face close to the slim, arrogant nose. "I dare say a constable will bring you to your senses, lad."
Adam had the satisfaction of seeing his captive squirm uneasily and his face blanch. To be publicly conveyed through the streets by this tall stranger, and subsequently brought before the magistrate and thrown into prison for thieving—the utter humiliation of this ordeal would be so mortifying that it had the lad delving into the pocket of his baggy breeches and producing the purloined watch.
"Here, take it. I—I am sorry I took it," he muttered, the apology almost sticking in his throat.
Adam released his hold on the jacket and retrieved his timepiece, noticing how small the lad's hands were—a necessary asset to any thief, he thought wryly. He was certain this young scamp possessed a healthy concern for his miserable hide, and knew fear was the determining factor in his decision to return his watch.
"Being sorry won't undo what you've done."
Silent and antagonistic, the lad looked up at the stranger, meeting eyes of vivid blue set in a face tanned by the sun. The man was tall, his body hard, lean and muscular, giving the appearance of someone who rode, fenced and hunted. Beneath his tricorn hat dark brown hair was drawn back and fastened at the nape, accentuating his leanly covered cheekbones and firm, angular jaw. His nose was aquiline, and beneath it were generous, but at present, unsmiling lips.
The lad guessed him to be at least twenty-eight. There was an aggressive confidence and strength of purpose in his features, and also something serious, studious, almost. He detected an air of breeding about him, a quality that displayed itself in his crisp manner, neat apparel and austere mien. The man's stern eyes, holding his captive, seemed capable of piercing his soul, laying bare his innermost secrets, causing a chill of fear to sear through him and his eyes to dart about, looking for a means of escape, but the man barred his passage.
Adam was calmly giving the lad the self-same scrutiny, seeing a boy of no more than thirteen or fourteen. Feeling a stirring of compassion—an emotion that was completely alien to him—he gradually allowed his anger to recede and his stern visage softened. The small, slight form was clad in ill-fitting garments, and he was as dirty and undernourished as any other juvenile who inhabited St Giles, but there was an air and manner about him that held his attention.
Adam's look became enquiring as he continued to study the lad—and realized he was educated, recalling how he had blistered him in French in so diverse a manner when he'd hoisted him out of the puddle by his backside.
"Now, what shall I do with you? You're naught but a boy. It'd be more fitting to give you the spanking you deserve than to deliver you up to the magistrate."
A feral light gleamed in the lucid depths of the lad's eyes. "You lay one finger on me, and I promise you you'll live to regret it," he ground out in a low, husky voice.
In the face of this dire threat Adam leaned forward deliberately until his eyes were on a level with the lad's, little more than a foot apart. His eyes were hard and ice cold, yet when he spoke his voice was soft and slow.
"Be careful, boy. Don't you dare me, or I'll administer the punishment you deserve. I abhor the abuse of children—so don't tempt me, otherwise I might change my ways." The lad stared at him, and when Adam considered he was sufficiently chastened and humbled, he drew himself erect. "Do you make a living out of stealing other people's property, knowing you could land in gaol—or be hanged for it?"
A brief, reluctant nod gave Adam his answer. "Better than starving," he mumbled.
Adam suppressed a smile and directed a stern countenance at the young rapscallion. "And do your parents know?" he enquired, knowing as he asked the question, being a student in human nature, that his parents would more than likely be the receivers of their son's stolen goods.
Still glaring his defiance, the lad raised cold bright eyes to Adam's and his chin came up belligerently. "What's that to you?"
Adam shrugged. Re-attaching his watch to the empty chain and shoving it inside the breast pocket of his waistcoat, he continued to study him thoughtfully. "Do they know where you are?"
Thrusting his hands deep into his pocket, the lad scuffed the dirt with his oversized boots and averted his angry eyes. "They're both dead," he revealed in sullen tones.
"I see,'Adam said with more understanding. Hearing a low growl come from the lad's stomach, he took pity on him. "I was about to get something to eat. Would you care to join me—or will that pride of yours stand in the way of allowing your victim to put food in your belly? You look as if you haven't had a decent meal in a month or more."
The lad's eyes betrayed a large measure of distrust and he held back. A thief couldn't afford to hang around his victim. "I don't take charity. I can take care of myself."
"I know," Adam remarked drily. "You prefer to steal it." 'I'm particular as to whom I eat with." 'Suit yourself." Adam turned abruptly and strode away. Gnawing on his bottom lip, the lad watched him go, the hollow ache in his middle reminding him how hungry he was. It had been hours since he'd eaten, and the stale bread and mouldy cheese had been less than appetising. Hunger pains overcame his sense of outrage and, unable to let the chance of a meal slip by he scrambled in the stranger's wake.
"Wait. I suppose I could manage a bite," he said, though it chafed him to do so.
Adam smiled to himself and glanced back. "Then hurry up. You're lagging, boy," he reproached, heading for the nearest alehouse.
The youth glowered at the broad back. The man was infuriatingly sublime in his amusement. If he weren't so desperate to eat, he'd cheerfully tell him to go and jump in the Thames.
Avoiding the drunks, they entered a tavern. It was scruffy, noisy and dark, the walls blackened with the heavy smoke of the fire, candles and tobacco smoke. When they were seated in a dark corner and food ordered, Adam looked across the table at his companion. He sat erect, his small chin raised, and Adam could see him putting up a valiant fight for control— a fight he won. Despite his ragged garb he looked incongruously like a proud young prince, his eyes sparkling like twin jewels. Adam's granite features softened and his eyes warmed, as if he understood how humiliated the lad felt.
Pity stirred his heart. The lad was just one of hundreds of London's lost children with thin, dirty faces, their eyes dull and lifeless, children who would never know their parents, since many whose parents could not support them had been deserted, and their only means of survival was to steal or beg.
His thoughts shifted to another young boy, a bastard of the same blood as himself—that he too might be a ragged street urchin, condemned to a life of disease and hunger. Deprived of the prosperity he was accustomed to, had he survived— this? With this in mind he looked again at the lad and felt himself drawn to him. Why, he could not say, but he was in a position to ease his lot in life—if only a temporary ease—and perhaps the lad could be of help to him.
"Since we are to eat together, we might as well get better acquainted. My name's Adam. What's yours?"
The lad met Adam's gaze, serious, intent on his own. He had the uneasy thought that his companion was like a tall, predatory hawk, and that he was a tiny disadvantaged bird, or a mouse about to be pounced on.
"What's that to you?" he questioned suspiciously. Adam's curiosity increased. He arched a brow and peered at his companion, shrugging casually. "Just curious. You do have a name, don't you?'he enquired with a trace of sarcasm. When the lad made no further comment Adam glanced at him sideways, prompting, feeling his resistance. "Ed," the lad mumbled reluctantly. "Ed? Ed what?" 'Just Ed," he retorted sharply, not wishing to become too friendly.
"Right. Just Ed it is then."
Ed began to fidget and his expression became pained. Removing his hat to scratch his head, he exposed an unevenly cropped thatch of an indeterminate colour.
Adam grinned at the tousled-haired youth. "It's time you took yourself in hand and gave yourself a bath."
"I can take care of myself," Ed bit back irately, pulling his hat back on. "Besides, baths are for the gentry—not the likes of me." Uneasy beneath Adam's close scrutiny, he pulled his hat further down. Sometimes daylight had a habit of revealing more than it ought.
Adam continued to watch him, reminding himself that here was no innocent. But he could not help but wonder at the gist of the lad. "Where do you live, Ed—when you're not relieving people of their possessions, that is?"
Ed's eyes sparked, and his fine-boned face tilted obstinately to betray his mutinous thoughts. Why did he have to pry? "You ask too many questions," he snapped.