Gav could hear them whispering as they followed him into the alley.
“What a block. Do you think he even knows how to use that sword?”
“He must be too thick to realize it’s too long for him to draw over his shoulder,” sneered the leader of the bold threesome.
“He doesn’t even know we’re back here!” giggled the third.
Gav, who definitely did know that they were behind him, high-stepped over a pile of trash and nearly put his foot on a rat that was gnawing a discarded piece of bread. Gav paused politely to let it get out of the way; it ducked behind a pile of broken bricks and glared at him suspiciously. He directed a little bow toward the small inhabitant—one could never be too careful—and strode onward.
If he had been able to move more quickly, he might have been able to avoid the three young men coming up behind him. But he was not familiar with these alleys—and he was not going to run. No. Gav didn’t run much these days.
“Hey, you!” called Would-Be Bandit No. 1. “Wait up. We want to ask you something!”
Bandit No. 3 nearly collapsed against the wall, so convulsed was he by his friend’s wit.
Gav turned around.
He quite understood why this young and gawky trio might decide that he was an easy mark. He was the same height as the shortest of them, his shoulders neither narrow nor broad. His armor was the cheap leather kind that would just barely stop a knife—sometimes. His face was round, beardless; his expression mildly inquiring. His only weapon was his sword—which was, as Bandit No. 1 had pointed out, too long to draw by the hilt from the sheath slung across his back.
Bandit 1 grinned. It was a respectably menacing grin; Gav was impressed. “Would you like to keep your money, or would you like to stay alive?”
Gav smiles at them, still mildly. “Do you mean to imply that I may keep my money if I’m dead? That doesn’t seem likely, for both practical and theological reasons.”
“Huh?” quoth Bandit 2.
“Practically, I would expect you to rob my corpse. Theologically, it is not written: you can’t take it with you?”
“Um…” This was not at all how the trio had expected the scene to play out.
Bandit 1, smart enough to realize that he was being defied, said, “Give us your money. Or we’ll kill you.”
“I don’t have any money,” Gav told him, with perfect truth. He hadn’t bothered to carry the stuff in years.
Bandit 1 snorted. “Let’s get him!” He surged forward.
The problem with attacking someone in an alley is, of course, that it is very narrow. Bandit 3 was stuck behind his compatriots—something that didn’t seem to bother him much, despite his whoops of encouragement. Bandits 1 and 2 were pressed so closely together that it took them much longer than it needed to for them to reach the short, unassuming stranger.
Just enough time for Gav to reach back, pull his sword hilt up as far as he could, then reach down, grab the blade, and pull it the rest of the way out of its sheath.
Struck by the sight of a man holding his own sword by the blade, and by the hilarious possibility of seeing him slice off his own fingers, Bandit 3 began cackling again.
Gav lost no fingers. Still holding the blade with his right hand—the hilt with his left—he advanced on Bandits 1 and 2.
Bandit 1 made a harsh noise and hit the sword with his club. He may have been thinking that Gav could not possibly hold on to a sharp blade when it was struck; he may have simply been thinking that he wanted to hit something. In any case, his blow had no result whatever.
Gav let go of the blade at last. He reached out and pulled the club from the bandit’s hands. Then he threw it behind him.
Bandit 2 hit him on the shoulder with his own club. Gav winced, hearing the crack.
Bandit 2 stared in horror at his shattered club. “What—What—“
“As I said, I don’t have any money. If it’s all the same to you, perhaps you would stop attacking me and go away,” Gav suggested.
They went. It was not exactly a retreat—Bandit 1 called unpleasant things over his shoulder as he strolled away—but they did go.
Half a dozen rats were watching from under various piles of garbage. “Do pardon me for disturbing you,” Gav said, with a general bow. After a moment of wiggling—getting the sword back into its sheath was always more trouble than taking it out—he picked up the discarded club and walked away.
He found Tamyiz in the inn, slicing an unappetizingly thick carrot into coin-sized pieces. Orange juice stained her gloves. “What happened to you?” she asked, blowing a strand of coarse dark hair out of her face.
“Nothing of importance,” he said, dropping the club into the kindling pile by the common room hearth.
“Your gauntlet,” she pointed, using three fingers.
Gav looked down at his palm. The leather was sliced rather badly; through the rents, he could see the smooth stone of his hand. “Ah. Thank you.”
“We’re packed, if you’re ready.”
Gav bowed. It was an adequate answer, and the bending seemed to help him stay flexible.
“All right then.” Tamyiz carefully worked one glove off. Then she lifted two carrot slices in the air with her gloved hand, reached across to touch each one with an ungloved fingertip.
Five minutes later, the adventurers rode out of the inn courtyard and down the main street toward open country. There were dragons to be discouraged, and numerous other thankless but necessary tasks to be performed.
And on the table in the common room, two gold pieces lay gleaming.