Authors: Gary Gygax
More months slipped by, and Gord and his friend were often seen about the district. The gangs hated both of them, for the big man was not to be threatened and in fact ran them off if they attempted extortion. Perhaps the members of these bands of young toughs secretly wished they had such a friend and protector, but whether from envy or for some other reason they vowed to get Gord whenever he was without the hairy-faced fellow. The little lad had to be very cautious indeed when he ventured forth on his daily rounds, for the older and bigger boys did watch for him and stole whatever he had.
When Gord complained to Uncle Bru about this, the big man nodded sympathetically and told Gord that he could teach some things to him, but some things Gord would have to learn on his own. That way the lad would be fit to survive in the harsh environment of Old City.
“Do you remember how to count?”
Gord proudly counted to twenty, and he was ready to go on all the way to one hundred, but Uncle Bru raised his hand. He asked Gord to show him how to make the numbers he’d just said. “Easy,” the boy replied, and using his finger he began drawing lines in the dirt. “That’s a one… and that’s a two… and here’s a-”
The boot struck him with fair force and sent him sprawling in the dust. The carefully made numbers were obliterated by Gord’s skid as he fell from the kick.
“Get away from me, you filthy little beggar!” Uncle Bru spat in Gord’s general direction and then turned away and walked off. “If I ever catch you trying to steal from me again, I’ll break your scrawny neck!” he called back threateningly over his shoulder.
This couldn’t be happening! Gord’s mind was racing. Leena would do something like that, but not his friend, not Uncle Bru. He could trust nobody but the big man, and his friend would never betray his trust! Bru was walking away with long strides, not even looking back to see if Gord was injured. Perhaps it was a new game or a lesson…
Thinking that, Gord scrambled up and started to call after Uncle Bru. Then he saw two mean-looking men come out of a nearby alley. They had a huge mastiff with them, and their appearance was sufficient to still Gord’s words in his throat. The little boy swallowed hard and shrank back. He knew the trick of becoming invisible. It is a skill all children have, and it worked only with adults, of course. In the slums, it was a vital part of survival.
Neither man looked at him at all. The huge dog glanced at the boy, then stared at the figure of the man walking away, for that was the object of his master’s attention. “Dat’s ’im,” one of the two said. “Round the corner, then, and we’ll take ’im,” the other agreed as Uncle Bru disappeared down a lane. With that the two men ran off, the mastiff on its rope pulling the one on the right. They too rounded the corner and disappeared in seconds.
Gord’s skinny legs pumped. His heart racing almost in time with his running feet, the boy dashed after Bru, the two bad men, and the fierce dog. He managed to get to the lane in time to see the pair chasing his friend turn into a side passage, a gangway too narrow for them to walk abreast. The one with the mastiffs rope went first, with the dog straining ahead. Gord slowed and crept closer, because the second of the two pursuers had stopped and was standing just inside the narrow passage.
Then a horrid growling echoed from the gangway. The mastiff was attacking Uncle Bru! The ferocious sound suddenly changed to a rising howl, however, and it ended with a high-pitched whine that was cut off suddenly.
“Shit!” The man still waiting near the entrance said that loudly. Then he produced a small sword from beneath his jerkin and rushed into the passageway. As soon as he did that, Gord was able to run up to the place to see what was going on.
He heard sounds of the struggle as soon as he got to the opening between the buildings. Gord peered around the corner cautiously, wanting to run right in and help his only friend, but knowing that he was far too small and weak to do anything except get in the way.
The passage was short, no more than a dozen paces long. After that the space between the two structures widened and was open to the sky. Gord could see the shapes of three men beyond the gangway’s end. One was surely Uncle Bru, judging from his size and his beard. He was locked in a hand-to-hand struggle with one of the smaller men. The other assailant was dancing around the pair, sword in hand, trying to find an opening to strike with his weapon.
It was evident to him that nobody would notice him now, so Gord scurried up to where the passage opened, staying back just far enough to be hidden by the shadows. Just beyond the end of the tunnel lay the mastiff. From the way its head was positioned, Gord knew that its neck had been broken. The boy noted that fact in a quick glance; then his attention was redirected toward the trio of fighters.
Although Bru’s clothes were torn, and his cheek was bleeding from a couple of long gashes, the hairy-faced man seemed to be unhurt otherwise. Perhaps his bushy beard had saved him from the jaws of the dog, for there seemed to be parts of the thick mat missing now from around his throat. The smaller man was holding a dagger, but Bru had the fellow’s wrist and arm locked in his viselike left hand, while he clasped the killer in a bear-hug with his strong right arm, using the man’s own body as a shield. The dagger was moving back, away from Bru, because his friend was slowly bending the attacker’s arm upward and back. Gord thought that it would have been an easy tiling for Bru, except for the other bad man with the narrow sword.
“Stab the sonuvabitch!” the man with the dagger cried. There was pain in his voice, and as he spoke the last word, the wind rushed from his mouth with a gasp, for Bru had used the opportunity to tighten his grip around the man.
“Hold ’im still,” the other one panted, trying to circle so that he could get at an exposed portion of the big man. Bru kept shifting and circling at the same rate, however, seemingly able to anticipate every move the swordsman made. The sword-wielder made a tentative stab, then shouted, “Hol’ ’im still, godsdamnit, else I’ll never get to stickin’ ’im!”
“The bastid’s tryin’ ta break me arm, ya shithead,” the one caught in Bru’s grasp managed to choke out. “Do sumpin’!”
Just then the arm holding the dagger moved farther back, and the man’s mouth opened In a grimace of pain. There was a funny, snapping sound too, and the knife flew from his open hand. That seemed to make the other killer act with more quickness and less sense. The man with the sword fairly flew as he circled, and the sword shot out with terrible speed and force.
“There!” the evil-faced man cried as his blade sank into flesh. Then the man’s face went very pale as he saw that he had driven the weapon through his comrade’s back. Bru and the stabbed killer were between him and the gangway. The man simply let go of his small sword, turned on his heels, and fled through the courtyard and into another passageway at its end. He was gone in a matter of seconds.
“Uncle Bru! Are you all right?” Gord called from his hiding place. His friend was just standing there, still holding onto the man with the sword sticking out of his back.
“What are you doing here?” Bru’s voice sounded strange to Gord’s ears. The man turned slowly, still clasping the dead attacker. His face changed from its hard expression to a smile, however, as the thin boy advanced hesitantly out of the shadows. “Never mind me, Gord,” he said softly. “You’re a friend indeed, and I thank you. Take hold of that sword there and pull it out-real careful like.”
It was a terrible thing to ask. Gord didn’t want to do it. He stood still, looking uncertainly at Uncle Bru. “I don’t want to touch it…,” Gord managed to say.
“Do as I tell you, you little fool!” Bru’s eyes were narrowed, and his tone was hard. “Do it now, and do it carefully. If you don’t, I won’t be your friend anymore!”
After the kick and the strange behavior, Gord wasn’t so sure that Bru was really his friend anyway, but he had to do what Bru said because the little boy still wanted the man’s friendship, even if the feeling was no longer mutual. His hands reached out and touched the sword’s hilt.
“Grab hold, boy, that’s right,” the big man said with soft encouragement.
Gord grabbed hold and his thin arms tugged. The weapon came slowly at first, then all the way out at once. Gord toppled over from the sudden end of its resistance as it pulled free.
“Aaaah,” Bru sighed as he let the dead man topple to the cobblestones. “That’s a good lad! I feel much better now.”
Now the boy suddenly realized what had happened. When the man with the sword had stabbed his friend, the thin blade had gone all the way through the fellow and stuck its point into Uncle Bru too. Gord had pulled the sword out of his friend as well as from the dead attacker’s back. “Are you hurt bad?” He saw his friend pushing a wad of cloth against a place on his side where blood stained his jacket.
“Yes, of course, lad. I’ll be just fine, but I’ll have to have this wound tended to soon. That was a stupid thing you did, Gord, following me,” he added with a mock scowl at the worried little face that peered up at him.
“Those men were after you. I saw them and the bad dog chase after you, and I had to see what was happening. I think you’re my friend even if you were mean to me, and friends got to help each other-you told me that.” Gord’s expression was a mixture of uncertainty and challenge. Would Bru now contradict his own words to him?
“Ah, you are right again, Gord. But come on, we have to get away from this place quick. It won’t do for anyone to see us here-particularly together.” The big man picked up the sword, wiped it clean on the dead man’s clothing, and hid it under his jacket. “Did the one who ran away see you?” he asked as he guided the boy back the way they had come.
“No, neither of them saw me, but the dog did.”
“That’s no matter. Are you sure the men didn’t, though?” Uncle Bru’s tone was urgent.
“Oh, yes, I’m very sure of that. Both of them only wanted to see where you were going, so they were too busy to spot me following them.”
“Good. Very good. This is far enough, though. You go back to your place now, and forget what happened. Forget all about me too! You must never mention what happened here to anyone-not Leena, not a new friend you might find, not anyone. The same goes for me. From now on, you never knew anyone named Bru, never saw anyone who even looks like me. Understood?”
Gord shook his head. “No. I can’t say that. Friends don’t forget each other… even if one is mean and kicks the other.”
“That was necessary-I’m sorry I had to do it, Gord. You are still my good friend. But, you see, those two men who tried to kill me were watching. I saw them, and I knew they had seen us. If they had thought you and I were pals, they would have killed you first, then come after me.”
“That’s why you did it!” Gord was jubilant at the revelation. Now he understood the sudden change from friend to enemy. “You did it so they would think I was just another guttersnipe trying to steal from you.” That made the little boy feel very good. Then something else came to him. “You really and truly saved my life…”
“Perhaps, perhaps. That’s no matter now, for the whole thing is done and over.” Bru sat down and leaned back against the crumbling bricks of the old building. There was pain on his face, and he groaned just a little as he tried to get into a more comfortable position. “That fight sort of tuckered me out, Gord. Your Uncle Bru needs to rest a second. Sit down here by me, and I’ll give you a last lesson.”
That didn’t sound good at all. Gord wanted no last lesson, but he did as Bru said anyway. “What do you mean?”
The big man patted Gord on his tousled head, ruffling the dark hair fondly. “Those men after me were killers. One of them is still a killer, of course. He got away. Soon he will be coming back with more of his kind, and this time there will be enough of them to do the job. I have to be long gone when they come back, and you don’t want them to see you, either-you can never be certain that the one who lived didn’t notice you. If he remembers you being with me, even if he saw me kick you, then he’ll try to get you, and ask you questions.”
“I’d never tell him anything,” Gord said stoutly. “You and I are friends, and friends don’t rat on each other.”
“That’s for sure,” Bru said with a grin, but then his face grew very serious. “But his kind have ways of making you tell. They would use knives, hot coals, anything they could to hurt you so bad that you’d have to tell them to make the pain stop. Those are bad, evil folk. That’s why I have to clear out and never come back again. That’s why you have to lay low for a week, and thereafter be very careful for a long time.”
“Won’t I ever see you again?” Gord couldn’t believe this was happening. “Take me with you when you go away!”
The big man compressed his lips. “I’ve got to move fast and travel far. You couldn’t manage it, and you’d slow me down. Even alone, I’m not so sure they won’t find me. They, or their lot, are determined once they decide to go after someone and kill them.” He looked at the thin face and the sad eyes. “You don’t want me to get killed, and I don’t want that to happen to you, either. The best thing a pair of friends can do in this kind of situation is to part company, so that each of them has a chance to live.”
Gord could understand that. “You’re really a very smart man, Uncle Bru. You have to get away for sure, and I’ll be a mouse here, and nobody will see me at all.”
“Good. It’s all settled, then,” Bru said with a sigh of relief. He managed to get back to his feet, the lad assisting him in the effort. “Now I’m off to get this hole in me patched up. One thing more, old friend. Don’t ever go back to my place-never! I’ll not go there again, and you mustn’t do so, either. Don’t even go near it. They’ll watch it for weeks, maybe months.”
“But all of your things are there, Bru! You can’t just leave so much.”
“Things don’t matter a bit. You know that, don’t you? What good is money, what use finery, if you’re dead? None, of course. Let those devils have what’s there-we need to stay alive!”
Gord couldn’t restrain himself. “You must be a very important man to have those killers after you. Are you a prince in disguise? You have to tell me, please. You’re going away now, and who knows when you’ll come back? I have to know, Uncle Bru.”