Ulfgar groaned as he leaned back against the lamp-post, wiping his nose with a square of folded linen, heavily stained a brilliant crimson with his blood. It appeared that the bleeding was finally going to stop. His knuckles stung as they brushed against the stiff hair of his beard and he hissed in annoyance, shaking the offending digits.
“How’s your nose?” James asked from his position against the brilliant blue wall he leaned against. He dabbed at his split lip with the edge of his shirt, grinning over at Ulfgar. His right eye glittered with amusement through the rapidly darkening bruises that surrounded it. A gash along his cheekbone glittered wetly in the fading light.
“Ah, I’ll live.” Ulfgar tucked the linen into a back pocket, grimacing as the fabric tugged against his knuckles. “That was a fine scrap, eh?”
James laughed darkly. “If you can call a whipping of that degree ‘fine’, then yes.”
“We acquitted ourselves well!” Ulfgar protested, settling back against the post. “Between the two of us we took out what, five?”
“Six.” James leaned his head back against the wall, peering over at the dwarf through slitted eyes. “That skinny one you kicked in the nethers was still writhing when we were thrown out.”
Ulfgar chuckled. “Fight with honor and lose honorably, that’s what my father says.”
“Sounds like a wise man.”
“I saw ye knock that one into the table and he ended up ass over heels against the railing. I liked that bit.”
James spat a wad of blood to one side. “Thanks. I think my favorite part was when you had a fistful of that mustached bastard’s hair in one hand and were using it to slam his head against the table.”
“Hair that long? He should have expected it.”
James nodded sagely. “His fault, really.”
“It was all going swimmingly until the guards showed up.” Ulfgar said ruefully, squinting down the street where a lamp-carrier was walking along, lighting the lanterns at the top of the posts with a wick on the end of a large pole.
“I did think it was a little unfair that they threw us out.” The half elf admitted, exploring a cut inside his cheek with his tongue. His knuckles were also bleeding slightly, and he pressed them against his trousers, growling slightly at the sting. “We weren’t the only ones fighting, after all.”
“Aye, but in the interest of fairness, we started it.” Ulfgar heaved himself to his feet, groaning. Artham had scurried down the street as soon as the guard had dumped the three of them on the sidewalk outside the bar. The merchants had been allowed to stay on the balcony, and every now and then a head would poke out, jeering down at them. Ulfgar blissfully ignored them. He’d made his point. He wiped the smile of that arrogant bastard’s face, and that’s all that mattered.
He held out a hand to James, who accepted it with a nod. Together they limped through the streets. It was early evening, and the streets were bustling with people who gave their bloody and battered faces a look and gave them a wide berth. They turned around a curve in the lane as it opened into a small square. Wagons rolled through at a sedate pace, and there were several cafes with second-floor balconies full of people enjoying the evening air. A uniformed guard was directing traffic soberly, armed with a whistle.
“Want to get a bite?” Ulfgar asked, nodding towards one of the restaurants. His stomach rumbled hungrily. James opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by an angry voice cracking across the square.
A thin man glared at the two of them from the balcony of the restaurant closest to them, pointing down straight at James. His bushy brows were drawn together in a definitively unfriendly expression. His voice was high and cracked with strain as he screeched across the street like a banshee.
“It is you! Bastard!”
“Is that man yelling at you?” Ulfgar asked out of the side of his mouth. The two of them had frozen in place, as though the man couldn’t see them if they didn’t move.
“You remember me telling you about why I left Styhill the first time I was here?” James muttered back.
“That’s the man who came home early to find me in bed with his wife.”
Ulfgar groaned. They hadn’t stopped bleeding from their last fight, not to mention he didn’t particularly want to get in a fight with a man who was at least in his fifties. The man on the balcony had disappeared, shoving past curious onlookers, swearing loudly.
“We’re going to have to run now.” James started backing up slowly.
“What?” Ulfgar asked, startled. “It’s just one person. Even in our condition I think the two of us can take one man.”
“Because this particular man–” James’ bruised and swollen skin paled as the sound of deep-set barking filled the air. “–breeds dogs. Run!” The half elf turned and sped down a narrow side street as the largest dog Ulfgar had ever seen came barreling out of the restaurant. Coal black, with a sharp face that ended in a bared mouth full of teeth gleaming with saliva, it bolted towards the two of them so fast it almost appeared to be a blur.
Ulfgar swore loudly in dwarvish and turned to follow James, legs pumping as he hurtled down the street. Cold wind snapped against his face as he ran between flickering lamp-lights.
“Hurry up!” James shouted over his shoulder as he dodged a young boy on a bicycle who stared at the two men, jaw agape. Then the hound rounded the corner and the youth jumped violently with surprise, jerking the handles on the bike and almost careening into the wall of a house. The clicking of the dog’s toenails closed in on Ulfgar as he panted, trying to keep up with the faster half-elf. It was getting dark, and difficult to see in the narrow street.
“I’m a dwarf! I have short legs!” He shouted angrily at James’ back.
“Not my fault! One side, one side!” The half elf shouted gleefully, waving aside a group of shoppers as they emerged from a storefront.
“I swear to gods Heartrender…” Ulfgar growled in between pants as he nearly tripped over a dropped bag of what looked like yarn, leaping over it at the last second.
“You may want to consider praying to something a little more useful given our immediate situation!” James actually seemed to be enjoying this, damn him. Behind them the dog started barking again, a booming, angry sound. “This way!” James turned right and barrelled down a narrow cobbled lane that angled steeply downwards.
Gasping and sweating, Ulfgar and James ran through a confusing maze of small streets and alleys as the houses around them grew tighter, reaching higher and higher overhead until they seemed to crowd the dark navy sky menacingly. The hound pursued like a devil, grimly hurtling around corners and bounding down streets, its snarling getting louder as it slowly closed the gap between them.
They rounded a corner, ran down a lane and were suddenly face to face with a towering brick wall, several stories high. A dead end. James swore loudly and kicked it with frustration. Ulfgar would have done the same had he not been bent double, desperately sucking in air.
They were in a narrow cul de sac, surrounded on three sides with lean houses, doors shadowed by rickety wooden porticos made of salvaged pieces of old furniture. Ropes criss-crossed overhead, draped with laundry. A pair of lamplights at the mouth of the lane were the only source of light.
“You…are…the worst.” Ulfgar managed between gasps. The roar of the hound grew louder and James turned grimly, hand going to his rapier. Ulfgar straightened and drew the dirk strapped to his chest. Some part of him felt bad for killing a dog that was just doing the bidding of its master, but if it came down to the choice between Ulfgar’s life or the dog’s…
As the beast rounded the corner, toenails clicking as it drifted slightly on the cobblestones, a bloody piece of meat was flung in front of it, slapping wetly to the ground with a wet splat. A gaggle of children clad in rags popped from behind several doors, yelling and waving their arms at the confused dog, who hesitated at the mouth of the alley, teeth bared. They clapped their hands loudly and made rude gestures, yelling coarsely. The hound faltered for only a moment before deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, grabbing the hunk of meat and vanishing around a corner. Silence fell.
(Picture credit: MajinBanzai, deviantart.com)