Aejiri Thesjoon

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“With a spear, you can poke an enemy’s eye out before they can reach you. With a really long spear, you can —, well, honestly, it’s pretty much the same philosophy.”

When I was a kid back in the muck streets of Narwell, a sharp stick was my best friend. Not in a literal sense, of course; even then I was pretty unnurtured for a kid (we all were). In those days, a whispered word that you had an imaginary friend got the snot beaten out of you if you were lucky. And I was not a lucky fellow.

It was old Kael Claraine. Seedknife, they called him, cause of his unusual dispositions. Seems that his mother got raped by some Suel cutthroat and he was eager to return the favor. He probably figured I was Suel, cause of my pasty white skin and blond hair. I hate it when the bastards are right. Being Suel made me stand out in a crowd.

When a gang of kids comes looking for you, it’s not for a pat on the back. Your first instinct is to run; and you should trust it. Yeah, I’ve heard the storybooks. I emptied slopbuckets at the local inn, and when I wasn’t being yelled at, I was skipping work to listen to weaver Fregin – loreweaver Fregin – he told the best stories in town. And that’s what they were: stories. In Fregin’s stories, lone knights faced down hordes of orcish barbarians and came out the only individual healthy enough to take a piss in the battlefield carnage. How? I didn’t ask. Kids, on the other hand, are a different story. A child can’t even fight a mob of angry cats without getting half-inch deep festering scratch marks and a coin’s chance of dying from rabies. That’s the difference in real life. In real life, the coin flips tails. You turn to face one pug-nose ham-fisted bully, and his scrawny snickering sidekick sneaks up behind and sucker punches you in the kidney. And when you fall on the ground? The rest of the gang swarms up for a friendly game of kick the corn with your body. Hey, what’s life without a few pals? When your instinct screams run, you run. So I ran.

I ran like my life depended on it. Till my legs felt like they were burning cheap kerosene, until my legs felt like worn-out rubber. Ironic really, because I should be a genius at running; natural born inbred talent, a family inherited trait. The ancient Suel, the ones my grandfather always talked about, fled to this country to escape a horrific war. Centuries later, that gut instinct is still kicking. When the Suel in my birth home were getting killed in broad daylight by a string of assassinations, did my family stay to fight? Nah, we tucked tail and ran. We ran to a dingy, disgusting, crap Podunk town – a place where we thought we could hide. Except we stood out like a sore thumb. Yeah, as good as we were at running, we weren’t exactly known to be smart. Suel are murderers and thieves, not bloody tacticians.

So here I am running, and the first thing I realize is I’m dead tired. The second thing I realize is that I’m ridiculously lost. The last thing I realize is that I’m in an alleyway. You gotta be kidding me, a dead end. I turn around and there’s Kael, grinning like it’s new year’s day and his old man was sober enough to shove a couple of coppers in his hand to buy a loaf of bread. Couple of the lackeys behind him look pretty damn tired, and I must have lost a few in the chase. An alleyway is an empty place, an easy place to get killed. I look around and the first thing I see, I snatch up, it’s this stick. Brandish it like a sword and puff my chest up like a little lizard trying to look bigger.
“Kael,” I yell, “that better be a goddamn knife in your pocket.”
He grins even broader.

Half an hour later, I’m coughing up blood and kissing the floor. The stick’s still in my hand, in this knuckle-tight deathgrip. Kael and his buds saunter away, chuckling. Until it’s me alone in that alleyway with broken ribs and a busted up leg. It’s getting dark, and let’s face it, I know my parents aren’t coming to look for me. Sunset is when the crime comes out, and it’s dangerous enough that they just stick to the house. What do I do? I grit my teeth and brace myself up on that stick and hobble my way home. Told you that a stick was my best friend. Stuck with me till the end.

The sad thing is, the story doesn’t change. After I heal, I find out Kael isn’t the only guy who hates Suel. Turns out there’s a club, and everyone gots a membership. Hell, I would have gotten a membership, if they would’ve let me join. Everyday I would get the blood beaten out of me, cause a Suel stole his grandfather’s prized clockwork watch, cause a Suel stabbed his dad in the back. I believed them. I would have done the same thing given half the chance, but I was a horrible at fighting. After one particularly brutal beating, as I stood there, bracing myself against a wooden fence, I had an epiphany. Why run, when you could hide? And I got really good at hiding.

That’s what I did for most of my young life: skulk about streets and scrounge out of trash heaps. I remember the day it all changed like it was yesterday. I had hidden myself near this big, wooden barrel, and was watching Kael and his crew search for trouble. Except it wasn’t Kael’s crew anymore. Kael had always been the enterprising sort, and had apprenticed himself out to an honest loan broker, who went by the name Jokerfish. The Fish, it seemed, shared the same penchants as Kael did. Here I am, praying behind this sticking, rotting barrel that they never find me, when a strange-looking man turns around the corner. I’ve never seen anybody that looked quite the same as him. He was light-skinned, but not as pale as me. Instead of blond hair, his hair was black, and there was something about his facial features that looked slightly different. The moment I saw the stranger, Jokerfish’s face went deadpan. A second later, a horrible grinning sneer was painted across the blank canvass of his jawline, but the eyes were still dead, and in a flash, I knew – the Fish was going to kill him. He was going to kill the stranger, because the stranger looked different, because the stranger looked like a foreigner. The Fish’s crew gathered about the stranger like a circling, snarling pack of jackals. For the stranger’s part, he looked calm, in an oblivious, sort of innocent way; like he didn’t even know they were about to lynch him. The stranger stood there in puzzled silence as the crew enveloped him, cut off his last escape routes. I almost shouted out for the stranger to run. Fuck, I wanted to help the man. But I was a coward at heart. It was not my proudest moment. I should have threw stones at them. Yelled out, distracted them, done anything. But instead, I was petrified behind the barrel, useless. Another vestige of my heritage; Suel were runners not because we were good at it, but because we were cowards. I was afraid that Kael and Jokerfish would find me too, so I did nothing. For that, I would have let a good man die.

Kael was the first to step up. He’d always been the type of guy to take initiative. Kael shoved the stranger in the chest, and muttered something angrily to him; I couldn’t hear from the distance. From there it degenerated pretty quickly. Ugly laughs, shoves, and then punches. Jokerfish reached out, grabbed the stranger’s shirt, and then pulled his right fist back for his signature broke-nose punch. The fist flew…

…And it missed. Unbelievable. I had to blink twice. The stranger was being held still by a large thug, and the fist actually missed. Impossible. The Fish had a stunned stupefied look on his face. Perhaps he was as surprised as I was. Punching a held-man is as easy as punching a sack of grain, and I had seen the Fish do it a hundred times. But this time, the Jokerfish had swung hard and instead breaking the stranger’s nose, he had somehow brushed the side of the stranger’s cheek. Course that ‘brush’ was a knockout punch for the poor sap behind the stranger, who was holding the stranger still.

At that moment, everybody paused. The poor sap’s knees wobbled a bit, and he collapsed to the floor in a sickening thud. A few people, even after the collapse, stood around with a slack-jaw gaze, but not Jokerfish. The Fish pulled his fist back in a slow motion second strike, his face yelling in an ugly grimace. At lightning speed, before the punch could hit, the stranger kicked Jokerfish in the stomach. A normal kick to the stomach would knock the wind out of a person, but I swear, when the stranger kicked the Fish in the stomach, the Fish went flying back, several feet, into wooden crates stacked on the other side of the street. His crew didn’t even have time to react. In the same burst of momentum, the stranger flipped on top of two men behind him. There was a flicker of movement, and suddenly the stranger had stomped those men into the floor. Kael moved to bash the stranger in the back of the head with a broken piece of crate. I have to give credit to Kael, because I wouldn’t have done the same. Kael was a brave man. The stranger didn’t even bother to turn his head to see that Kael was coming, he just took a short forceful step back, rammed his shoulder-blade into Kael’s chest, knocked the wind out of Kael’s lungs, and caused the makeshift club to fall uselessly to Kael’s side. Kael stumbled back, a look of complete bafflement on his face, while the last two of the crew jumped the stranger. A second later they were clutching broken arms and moaning on the ground.

Storybook.

The stranger had just fought seven men, and was the only person standing. I couldn’t believe it, I was watching a real life storybook. I don’t know when it happened, but somehow I had scrambled out from behind the barrel, and was running up to the stranger.

“Hey mister,” I said.
He looked at me.
“Hey mister, you look new to town, how about I teach you about these streets, so you don’t go fighting people like that, and in return you can teach me something.”
“Hm,” he said. I could tell he was looking me up and down, taking in my raggedly shirt, dirty pants, and the bruises when I was not so lucky at hiding.
“What do you want me to teach you?” he asked.
Even though I was only a child, I knew this was the moment, and that the way I answered matter.
I looked the stranger in the eye. “I want you to teach me a way to protect the people I care about.”
The stranger smiled. “Yes,” he said as he took my hand. “I think I might know a little about that.”

Aejiri Thesjoon

Tales of the Righteous Vanguard machu22