The customer was well dressed, not as well dressed as a noble or a wealthier merchant, but neat, clean and tidy. A servant perhaps. Shrewd though, he was haggling hard and this was creating Soren’s chance. The haggling was intense and the opportunity was growing greater by the moment. With as much nonchalance as he could muster with the smell of the different foods all around nearly driving him to madness, he walked quickly, but not too quickly, past the customer and into arm’s reach of a beautifully shaped, golden loaf of bread. A series of inviting diagonal grooves were cut across its back, betraying its crusty shell and no doubt hiding delicious fluffy bread underneath.
His hand was shaking; the thought of the bread set his mouth awash and his heart was racing. The bread was firm to the touch, but yielded to the slight pressure of his hand. Then he had it, clutched to his chest. Keep walking, he thought, slow and steady, it is as easy as anything. The weight of anticipation was beginning to lift from his shoulders when disaster struck.
‘Stop there! Thief!’
For a moment Soren hoped that the shout had been directed at someone else, but a glance over his shoulder proved that it had not. The merchant had pulled a long thin club from underneath his counter and was striding purposefully toward him. One of the smaller side alleys that ran off the square was his best chance; they led to the warren of tight twisting alleys that riddled the city like veins, a web that anyone who had grown up on the streets was intimately familiar with.
With eighteen years under his belt, Soren had found over the last couple of years that his body had become inconveniently large. The small spaces between adults at leg level that had once provided free passage when he was younger were now closed to him. Instead he had to use his size to try to bash people out of his way to clear a path ahead. It was not the most economical of escapes, knocking from person to person.
With each bump and curse, the merchant got a little closer. Just as one of the laneways came into sight and with only a few heads bobbing between him and it, he felt a firm hand grab a handful of his shirt between his shoulder blades. He spun around, and the first swing of the merchant’s club cracked him on the back of the hand and knocked the precious loaf of bread from his grasp. He watched with agonising hunger as the loaf hit the smoothly cobbled ground and was quickly trampled into oblivion.
Recovering quickly from this setback, Soren pushed backward as hard as he could, driving with his legs and forcing his way past the last few people and into the free space at the entrance to the alley. Unfortunately the merchant had followed swiftly through the void he had left in his wake. Throwing himself backward to avoid the swing of the merchant’s club, he fell into a pile of rubbish; various junk heaped there by the nearby traders. Luck smiled upon him as his hand came upon a piece of wooden doweling rod, which he quickly raised to parry off the next blow.
‘You’ll pay for that loaf, you little shit!’
‘Fuck off, you fat pig!’ said Soren. The merchant could easily afford to lose a loaf of bread. Its value to Soren was ten times what it was to him.
The merchant didn’t reply. Soren’s backchat just infuriated him. He bellowed in rage and kept furiously hitting down at Soren with his club. Soren scrambled to his feet, fending off each attack with his rough wooden rod. He consciously mirrored the stance of the swordsmen in the arena, his feet planted wide apart and his knees slightly bent. The contact of the two pieces of wood made a satisfying ‘thwock’ and Soren found that he was almost enjoying himself, or would have been if it were not for the painful hollowness in his belly and the disappointment at having lost the loaf of bread, which he was still feeling keenly. The merchant swung at him from left and right, the club swishing through the air. Some strikes Soren ducked, others he sidestepped, but the most pleasurable were those where wood struck wood, and Soren effortlessly deflected the club up, down, left or right; to any direction of his choosing. The merchant’s attacks seemed to come at him at a snail’s pace and Soren felt as though he could do as he liked.
The merchant, on the other hand, was not enjoying himself. Each spoiled attack was enraging him further. Instead of the satisfaction of beating the daylights out of a street urchin who had just robbed him, he was presented with the smiling face of a filthy gutter rat who he could not seem to lay a single blow upon. Furthermore, a chase that he had expected to take but a moment, was requiring considerably more time, and his stall was unattended and inviting further theft. Finally reason overcame rage, and he paused, his face red as he gasped for breath. Soren remained in a crouch, gently swaying his weight from foot to foot, his piece of wood held out in front of him, the tip deadly still. With a curse at both Soren and the conspicuously absent City Watch, he flung his club at Soren, which Soren easily dodged, turned and walked back toward his stall. Soren put one hand on his hip and with the other raised his club high, in the salute that Amero had always made after easily defeating an opponent.
As he stood and straightened himself, the bitter disappointment at having lost the loaf struck him and his empty belly with renewed force, but he was quickly distracted by a slow clapping sound. It was not the sharp sound of bare skin against skin, but that of soft, thick leather on leather drumming out behind him.