This story marks the return of Tusk! For those who need a refresher, this story takes places after “The Strongest Feller Around.” As a result of the events of that story, he’s using a different name. Enjoy!
“You ain’t paid your protection money, freak,” the human said. He was bigger than the others who had come with him, men armed gnarled wooden clubs. He wasn’t the biggest human I’d ever seen, but still a good size. His face was ugly, covered in old scars and new scars, his nose bent at an unnatural angle, teeth missing from his smug predator’s grin. This was a man who knew what it was to fight. This was a man who’d come by his life’s experiences honestly, had them carved into his body like some kind of design carved into a piece of wood. I could respect that. Really, I could.
It was a damn shame I was going to have to beat him until he wept like a little girl in front of his men.
“I told you earlier this week,” I said, the wrappings over my face doing nothing to muffle my voice. “My name’s not freak. It’s Coalheart, and if you’re going to threaten me, I’m going to rearrange your face for you.” I snorted. I wanted them to hear the distaste in my voice. I wanted them to know I didn’t take them any more serious than a bunch of kids pretending at being soldiers. That’s the only way to deal with humans like that. You’ve got to rile them up, beat them good, and send them bruised and broken back to wherever they came from. You see a human threatening you, telling you he’s going to take what’s yours, you’ve got to show him that you’re too strong for him.
And even outnumbered five-to-one, I was too strong for these guys. I laughed, the noise like a growl stuck in my throat. “Maybe your gods will take pity on you and you’ll wind up prettier than you are now.”
The human’s face went red with anger. His eyes went wide, his nostril’s flared, making him look like some kind of big, pink pig. His men snickered at my taunt. One of them said, “You going to take that from this filthy leper, boss?”
“No. No, I ain’t.” He raised his cudgel high and charged at me with a roar. Behind my linen mask, I grinned. And here I thought this town was going to be boring.
He swung straight down, but I caught his club in my hands. It hurt, but there was something familiar about it. It had been months since I’d left Glimmerton, and in the time it took me to get to Greystone, I hadn’t gotten into a single good scrap. There’d been some would-be bandits on the road, some angry drunks at inns, but nothing like the fights I’d gotten into with Sir Perceval in Quail’s Leap or Brother Zechariah in Glimmerton. Now those were good fun.
Of course, I could easily have been killed in those fights. But then, what’s the fun in a fight if there’s no challenge? If I wanted that, I’d just beat up farmers.
The ugly brute looked confused for a moment, like his brain couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been able to smash my face in. Then his eyes went wide. I pulled down and away from myself and spun, tearing the club from his hands and wheeling around to strike him across his back. Not hard, but he was off balance, and the blow sent him tumbling to the ground and sliding across the dirt road on his face.
He groaned, tried to push himself up. I snorted, disgusted with the human’s weakness and with myself for being wrong about him. I hadn’t even broken any of his ribs. A real warrior would have known to roll so as better dodge a follow-up attack. But this man was no warrior. Just a simple thug unused to his prey fighting back. Maybe this wouldn’t be a worthy fight after all, but at least this city would have one less pack of vermin wandering its streets.
I walked over to the man and planted my foot on his back, forcing his face into the dirt and pinning him. I raised the club, ready to smash his brains in, when someone tackled me from behind. I was knocked off balance and dropped my weapon, fighting to steady myself as my attacker’s fists beat weakly against my back and shoulders, all the while someone screaming into my ear, “Get away from him! Get away from him!” I roared and struggled, a wild bull trying to buck its rider, when another human struck me across my ribs with his own club. Pain flared across my chest and I gasped for breath.
I looked at my attacker, hate and anger focusing my vision. He was a young man with dark hair and dirt-caked skin dressed in the plain and unremarkable clothing of the poor. He looked underfed and he carried his weapon in two hands as if it were an axe and I were a tree to be cut down. This too was no warrior.
His arms went back. Such an obvious tell. I turned, and the blow smashed into the human on my back. They let out a sharp, high-pitched scream and crumbled to the ground. If the human attacking me noticed or cared about his comrade’s pain, he didn’t show it. Instead, he wound up to swing again. I punched him in the face, and he stumbled backward and landed on his ass in the dirt.
I raised my fists to protect my head and quickly scanned the area. The human I’d just punched was down on the ground cradling a broken nose. Two humans stood back uncertain, their clubs limp in their hands. A third was pulling their leader to his feet, his weapon lying discarded on the ground and marking him as a fool. As for the leader, he still seemed to be out of it from the blow I’d given him across the back. I didn’t know what had become of the human who had leapt onto me, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t see them in any position to menace me, so I figured they’d just run off.
Farther away, other humans watched the fight, some of them frightened, some of them barely interested, and some of them just curious. So this is the kind of city Greystone is, I thought to myself. A group of men will just attack a stranger in the streets and no guards rush to break it up. No one gives a damn. It’s all just part of the background noise of these humans’ lives.
“So give them a show,” I could hear Enrico saying in my head. “Their lives are so dull, so terrible, give them something new! Make them remember you!”
I smiled to myself as I imagined what my old friend would have said, and I stepped forward as I picked up the club I had dropped earlier. Men like this thug and his cronies probably menaced the humans on these streets every day of their lives. It’d do them some good to see someone standing up to their enemies. I kept the club low and ready as I stalked forward like a wolf, my eyes darting around. No one was going to stop me. Even the human who was helping up his leader looked ready to turn and run. This would be simple. I wouldn’t kill them.
I’d just humiliate them.
I broke into a run, and as I did so, the others fled. The leader’s eyes went wide, but his hand dropped to his belt, and he pulled forth a dagger and in a single swift movement threw it at me. It caught me by surprise, embedding itself in my shoulder, and I snarled. The thug stood up a bit straighter at that, his pride bolstering him for a moment, and he sneered. “A present! Welcome to Greystone, freak!”
I turned my head to face him, and his sneer wavered. He too turned and ran, shouting over his shoulder at me, “The Unblinking Eye is watching you, freak!” Anger boiled up inside me. I wanted to chase him, throttle him with my bare hands, but I hadn’t even been in Greystone a week and I didn’t know that they weren’t leading me into some kind of an ambush. Instead, I pulled the dagger from my arm, and looked at it. Forged from a single piece of metal and small. Double-edged with one end sharpened to a point, the other serving as a handle. But the handle had three holes cut into it, presumably to make the tiny thing even lighter. A dagger designed for throwing seemed like a strange thing for a simple mugger to carry, but the blade was otherwise unremarkable.
I frowned. Welcome to Greystone indeed.