Three hours later, they were no closer to their objective. Lunice was the first to quit. She stood up, wearily, and leaned against the wall of the alley.
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"This is no good," she said. She pushed her wet hair- dark blue with rain, and plastered to her face- back over her head. She looked very un-elven in such a vulnerable position, and both Merrick and Wekli found that this troubled them greatly.
"The rats must have gone to ground," said Merrick. He extricated himself from the culvert. "Bad luck, that."
Wekli shook the dirty water from his hands and stood up.
"What are we to do, then?" he said.
Merrick crossed his arms over his pale, naked chest. "We have a few choices."
"We can," Merrick began. "Either: Sleep in the cold and the wet, with no food and- in my case- no shirt; or, we can continue hunting in vain for rats; OR, we can borrow some coin, to tide us over until daybreak."
"Borrow?" said Wekli, confused.
"In a manner of speaking."
Merrick appeared to consider this. "Any wealthy passer-by would suffice," he said.
Lunice was the first to process this. "You intend to steal from someone."
"Nae, nae...well, maybe a little." Merrick shrugged. "Call it 'constructive borrowing'. If the volunteer is a polite one, we can pay him back in due course. I always do, when it is possible."
"You're a thief," said Wekli, with ill-concealed scorn.
Merrick turned to glare at him. "Young ranger from the north-country," he said. "You may feel you know a great deal about the workings of the world, but I can see in your eyes that you have never spent a day wondering which you will die of first: Hunger, thirst, sickness, or cold."
Wekli tried to meet the older man's gaze. "And you claim you have?"
"No," said Merrick. "And that's the damnable misery of it." He sighed.
Wekli shot a look at Lunice. She shrugged.
"Perhaps we-" she began. Her words were cut sharply off by the sound of horse hooves on the cobbles. This was followed closely by the sound of heavy wood creaking along down the road.
The three of them huddled together almost instinctively as the coach drew past the alley. Merrick turned his head, and saw that both Wekli and Lunice were watching the wedge of road with greedy eyes.
The sound of the carriage grew louder and louder, until it seemed to the three of them- who were listening with grave intensity- that it would surely plow through the wall and run them down.
Instead, a large, wet, brown carriage pulled past the mouth of the alley...and then stopped. The three of them could see the horses, as well as the front half of the carriage. The driver, who looked himself quite a bit like a larger version of the skinny wet rat Merrick had killed, was leaning back to speak to the unseen occupant. The word 'stopped', and the line '...completely washed out...' filtered back to them.
Merrick shuffled over to Wekli and leaned in close.
"Moment of Truth," he hissed into the ranger's ear. "Will you, or will you not join the dance?"
Wekli waved him away. It was answer enough.
Merrick duck-walked over to Lunice. She was fingering the hilt of her sword.
"Do you need a three-count?" he whispered, grinning.
"Very well. We go!"
They ran down the alley. Lunice drew her sword, Wekli his curved machete. The carriage-driver began to turn his head...
And found a long, fine-crafted blade at his neck. Lunice met the man's eyes.
"Leave," she said. The coachman turned away from her and bolted off into the street.
Wekli, meanwhile, had made his way around the side of the carriage, to the flap of cloth that hung over the entrance. "Come out!" he called. There was no response. The ranger began to push aside the flap with the tip of his weapon.
As he moved to do so, a blade swung out and cut through the cloth, missing him by no more than six inches. He staggered backward and almost fell. From out of the cab, a young man with fiery hair leapt high into the air, landing on the cobbles in fighting stance.
He leveled his sword- a long, slightly curved creation- at Wekli's heart, and started forward. Before he could do whatever it was he intended to do- and Wekli suspected the young man did not mean to tickle him with the weapon- Lunice's own blade came down between them. The elf-warrior and the young man whirled at very nearly the same time, and steel clashed off steel in the rain-washed night.
The young man moved and parried with an ease and skill that astounded Lunice, despite her years of warriorship. He blended familiar forms with a dazzling speed, moving his sword and working around it as though it were an extension of his own arm. She was hard-pressed to match him- she only realized how hard-pressed when her back came into contact with the wall. The sword-wielding young man hammered at her there, raining blow after blow onto her upraised sword, until her arm was half-numb with the shock. Wekli made several abortive attempts to enter the battle, but every time he approached, the young man would strike sideways at him, cutting shallowly across his leather armour- and, in one case, his face.
"Pitiful pair of bandits you are," said the young man. Lunice realized at that moment that her attacker was little more than a boy- no more than sixteen, perhaps seventeen years in the world. "I can promise you both," he continued, still moving. "That you will be turned in to the guardsmen and gaoled. And an elf! How low YOU must have stooped I will see you both gaoled for your crimes."
"Wrong," said a voice from behind him. The boy turned.
A lightning-flash illuminated a wiry and shirtless outline upon the roof of the carriage. Merrick coiled and threw the chunk of cobble he had pried out of the street. It flew straight and true, striking the young man high on the right temple.
He fell as if poleaxed.
Merrick leapt down and grasped the boy under the arms. "Hurry!" he said. "Get him into the alley."
Lunice bent and took up the boys legs.
"Is he dead?" said Wekli, following behind.
"Not by half," Merrick said. "Search him for money. I will return a moment."
"Where are you going?"
"To free the horses. Unless, that is, you wish to eat them." He gave them both a dour look, and disappeared out of the alley.
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.