Thurmond dashed through the crowd as fast as the narrow, twisting streets would permit. He dodged a donkey cart laden with firewood and squeezed by two men with a basket of river eels. His legs were beginning to weaken, and his breath came in hot, jagged gasps as if his chest were filled with small, sharp stones, yet he dared not pause or even slow his pace. He knew they were still back there and coming up quickly.
He knew as well that he could expect no help from any of the crowd that thronged the busy street. The dwellers of Old Shambles understood the wisdom of minding their own business. If a trio of corner boys wanted to rob him or beat him, perhaps even kill him, they would simply look away. In Old Shambles, it was always best to take no notice of other people’s affairs.
This was the poorest quarter of the city. Its denizens were left to feed freely on one another, and they did so with abandon. Strong-arm robbery, rape, and assault were daily, sometimes hourly, occurrences. More often than not, the break of day revealed the grotesque remains of the night’s victims—strangled, bludgeoned, and stabbed.
Corner boys were young street thugs who preyed upon whomever they thought they could victimize for sport or profit. They were notorious for their cruel and reckless deeds as they strove to gain recognition in the city’s criminal underworld. Those surviving to adulthood, if sufficiently blooded, could apply for membership in the Brethren, Gorgonholm’s crime cult.
Thurmond risked a quick glance over his shoulder but then nearly collided with a washerwoman carrying a heavy load of wet laundry. She was taller than he and as stout as a stone pillar. Her immense forearms looked like a blacksmith’s, and he thought she might in anger seize and hold him. But instead, she said something unintelligible, laughed, and proceeded on her way.
That brief delay was costly. His pursuers were gaining. He heard the slap of their shoes on the hard-packed earth of the street and their shouts of triumph as their quarry came into view. Without thinking, he slipped into a small opening between two houses. This was risky. The corner boys were residents of Old Shambles and knew its turnings and bystreets far better than he did. He could easily find himself trapped in some blind passage.
The alley opened into a weed-choked court, bounded on all sides by buildings. Other alleyways diverged from it, leading off in different directions. This was good. If he could slide into one unseen, he just might manage to give them the slip. Exhausted now, he skirted an open cesspit and selected a passage partially hidden by a ramshackle chicken coop.
He had just made it to this opening when a great savage dog rose silently from the weeds and plunged at him. Caught unawares, Thurmond stumbled and fell. He stared helplessly as the monstrous creature launched itself at his face. But at the last instant, the force of its lunge threw it backward as it reached the end of the chain bound around its neck. Its yellow eyes bulging with rage, the brute immediately rose and resumed its attack, but the boy managed to scuttle beyond the reach of its fangs. It again threw itself against the chain, causing a stream of drool to fly from its jaws.
It was at this moment that shouts announced the approach of the corner boys. The dog at once turned and flattened itself on its belly in the weeds. It offered no warning bark or growl. Thurmond stole a quick peek around the edge of the coop just as the trio surged into the court. They paused, taking stock, but the chicken coop screened him from view. He pulled back, regained his feet, and made his way quietly down the passage toward the street beyond.
The corner boys remained unaware of the dog until it was too late. They came straight across the yard, three abreast—all were well within the radius of its chain. Thurmond could hear the squeals of surprise and agony as the dog at last found victims within its reach.
He chuckled. He was in Lady Fortune’s good graces today. He had outrun three ruthless criminals and dodged an even more malevolent dog. This was all good practice, for he needed to keep his skills finely honed. When he was at last permitted to join the Adventurers, he would need all the endurance and agility he could muster.
Above all things, Thurmond longed to join the Brotherhood of Underworld Adventurers, an exclusive fraternity of seasoned warriors who ventured into the depths of the subterranean caverns to wrest wealth from the fell creatures that dwelled within. Such a man must have astounding luck, skill, and courage. He had to be willing to risk all, to face unimaginable hardship and agonizing death. But limitless riches and a life of infinite luxury could be his rewards. The eager youth deemed the risk well worth taking.
To Thurmond, any danger was preferable to the tedious village existence to which he had been born. He had never fit in. His thick brown hair was considered dubious in a community composed mostly of mousy blonds. Moreover, he was naturally intelligent, articulate, and ambitious. With such terrible disadvantages working against him, he could never expect the simpleminded laborers who tilled Lord Beaufort’s farm fields to wholly accept him.
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