“Tell us what happened, boy – and spare no detail.” The guard captain’s voice was stern as he eyed the lad, lips pressing in a thin line of disapproval.
He swallowed hard, gaze not lifting. “A man wanted me to leave my duties. Tried to give me wine, but I said no. Then he struck me in the head. When I came back ’round, she was there – fighting him off, I think. I tried to help, and she hit me in the throat. He got away.”
The guard captain eyed the teenaged stable hand with a lofting brow and the faintest the suggestion of a scowl. “You shouldn’t have interfered with your betters, boy. Elsewise we might be questioning him and not you – fat lot of good you’ve done us.” Here, a faint groan as he rose from his seat, the chair creaking softly as he brushed a hand over his eyes. It was late. He was tired, and ready to be done with this business.
“She wants to speak to you. Wait here.”
She sat across a small table from the boy, expression somewhere between solemn and serene.
Between them lay a sword; the sword was a simple thing, gently curved in the way of a scimitar, plain steel and a hilt wrapped in thick leather. There were no ornamentations, nothing to distinguish it from any other quality weapon – yet not an hour earlier, it had posed potentially a threat to the ugly woman and her sullen companion.
Both looked somewhat rougher for the wear, the boy’s chin held high and stiff as he swallowed convulsively, the woman’s nose swollen to much larger than it ought to have been. His eyes were untrusting and wary, and one of his work-weathered hands drifted to touch the goose egg that had formed on his shaven head. He waited for her to speak, frowning.
Daniyah offered the boy a quizzical smile, halved by the stiff scar tissue that perpetually twisted the right side of her face. “By right, this sword is yours, since your attacker did not leave anything else of worth with which to pay you. I would ask, however, for the opportunity to purchase it from you.”
He rubbed his head, finally dropping his gaze to the sword on the table, but making no move to reach for it. His voice was sullen and hoarse when he spoke, his cant very clearly higlighting the lowliness of his birth and station. “Then take it. He attacked you too, everyone saw it – only you didn’t fall down.” His weathered knuckles reached out, giving the sword a little shove with a balled fist. Any fool could see the resentment that simmered in his deep brown eyes – a lifetime of being pushed down, why should this time be any different? “No one’d look twice.”
The ugly woman shook her head, reaching out to carefully straighten the blade again before speaking in a lyrical, low voice. “You were attacked. You should be compensated by the man who attacked you – and by me, though it was not my intention to cause you harm.” Here, her eyes closed and she bowed her head serenely. “Coin cannot undo what has been done – but it is all we have to offer.”
His lip curled in a snarl, and his words came fast and angry. “I don’t want your coin – it won’t stop it from happening again, will it? Do you think this is the first time I’ve been knocked around? Just go! Take your money and your swords and leave – it won’t make a difference to me one way or another!”
Her head tilted, and her lips thinned, eyes falling half closed as she took in his words.
Somewhere deep inside herself, she could feel his anger as though it were her own. The sting of humiliation, of having no power over what happened to her – she could remember these things. The years had not been so long that she didn’t still own those feelings, that they didn’t still linger, pushed down and far away.
Empathy guided a hand to his arm, but he pulled away as though her fingers were snakes, leaning back in his chair. His body tensed, as though readying to bolt, and she drew her hand away, feeling a distant twinge of regret as he eased.
“… you were brave, you know. It takes courage to stand up to a man like that – and to face him down with a horse brush. There are places in the world were such impulse and grit might be honed into valor.” She tried to catch his gaze, but he wouldn’t meet her eye.
When he spoke, it was to the sword between them. “Maybe for those who were born the right way, to the right people. What would you know? You’re rich, probably some fat lord’s daughter gone do-gooder because you never had to work for a living – I can’t just leave my sisters here, even if there was a place that’d take me for my ‘grit’. So go on. Take your stupid sword and get out of here. I don’t need your pity or your coin.”
He stood, back straight and chin lifted, and offered her a shallow bow – a stiff imitation of a servant’s submission. Even as he turned and left, his features burned with the hurt of his pride and the sinking realization of what he’d turned down; however much coin the sword would have fetched might well have been a boon for his family.
Daniyah watched him walk away, and sat a long time after, troubled despite herself.
In the quiet of the empty room, she listened to the distant screech of the night-birds at their hunt, and allowed her heart its heaviness for a time.