|Laughter echoed along the dark streets of Koln. The cobblestones were suddenly aflame with the gentle glow of torchlight as the door of the tavern burst ajar, spilling four drunk men onto the streets. Young, their clothes dirtied with grease from food and stained with wine and beer, they laughed and chortled dirty jokes to one another as they staggered down the street.
They were too busy, or perhaps too drunk, to notice the slight crunch of gravel underboot as Annemarie turned slightly in place to watch them, the woman's features lost to the darkness. Her figure - and her gender - was concealed by the dark cloak she wore, wrapped about herself. Her dark garb was as much to prevent awkward questions in the daytime as to what a Danish woman was doing in the mercenary business as it was to shield her from the night wind. She watched them impassively as they passed her and staggered down the street, willing them to go on, to not do anything foolish, finger drumming on the hard pommel of the sword at her belt as she suddenly felt herself tense.
She had merely been walking when she had encountered them, and something about their demeanor had given her pause. They could be any other group of drunken young craftsmen staggering home after squandering their coin, but the bulky jerkins they wore had a stiffness to them that almost suggested that something had been woven into them. The leader had a dark beard and Annemarie could see a long knife at his belt, long enough to skin a deer. High boots and lots of stiff leather. She did not like their look.
One of them snorted, slurring a response to an insult hurled by his companion as they wobbled together, the combination of his drunkenness and his thick low Austrian accent making the words incomprehensible to her ears. The man in front, who Annemarie supposed was the "leader", was a pot-bellied, large-framed, bearded, black-haired man who looked like he would be at home in a barn. He swayed, though she could tell he was slightly less drunk than those that trailed behind him.
Annemarie watched after them as they trailed along, but felt the hair on the back of her neck rise as the leader suddenly swayed to a halt halfway down the street, and the rest of his compatriots wobbled to a halt behind him. She saw his eyes narrow as he looked towards an alleyway nestled in between two of the buildings ahead, and she caught the faint movement of shadow as a figure ducked out of sight within it. The leader had seen it too. "Well, look at that. Some rat's hiding down the way." The leader smirked, clearly in more command of his senses than his fellows. Annemarie uttered a curse under her breath as she saw him draw his knife and approach the alley's yawning mouth, the group drawing itself into a line as they followed him, drunken, noncomprehending gazes turning into ones of mischief and eagerness.
Annemarie heard a woman's voice as they approached the alley mouth, the words lost to the night wind blowing through the buildings, and yet the tone was clear; she was pleading. The leader raised his knife and planted his feet, and with a disturbing unity, the unseen woman's voice was drowned out by a sudden chorus of howls and shouts from the four men as they shouted at and terrified and tormented their unseen victim, yelling like animals. Annemarie heard the unseen woman shriek in surprise at the sudden outpouring of raw noise, a piercing sound that was abruptly drowned out by the noise from the men. They had done this before, such was the unison that they burst into tormenting song.
Annemarie was angry, now, and felt her hand clench. It was not just at their nerve. It was not just the fact that they were no doubt yet another group of drunken street-filth who loved to filch people for coin and valuables at night, like so many other "respectable" citizens in the district. No, it was at the sheer gall they had, to disrupt her walk with such foolishness. She felt herself break into a run and did not resist the impetus of her legs. They moved, as they did so often, with a mind of their own, expressing her will before she had even thought of it.
Her cloak fell from her shoulders - the leader was just advancing and saying something about how he would take his time with this one. Annemarie felt the pommel of her sword smash into the back of the nearest man's head, and saw the leader jerk in surprise at the sound, cut off mid-sentence by the wet snap of bone from his compatriot. Her target pitched forward and was still. Annemarie pushed off with her back foot and launched in on the second man. She saw his face flash, surprised, in the darkness, before she broke his nose, a wide swing connecting the flat of her blade with his face. Too drunk to respond with little more than a dull groan and a feeble raising of his hands, she shouldered him aside and felt, rather than saw, him lose his balance, toppling to the street.
By now the leader had turned to meet the sudden, storm-like onrushing of the swordswoman, the gleaming spike of his knife upthrust in front of him in a half-hearted attempt at some kind of guard. Annemarie did not pause in her rapid onrush, merely diverting it, stepping to her right, towards his empty off hand. Her sword was held low on her left as a result of the sweeping flat-strike that had taken down the second man, and so she simply swung it upwards from below in a hard cut into the underside of his forearms. She could smell the alcohol on his breath as she came in close, and it left her a moment afterwards as she stepped past him, feeling his arms jerk upwards as she cut into them, driving them upwards above his head. His knife flew out of his hand, lost to the night air along with his cry of pain as the shock of it rendered his hands useless for anything more than grasping wildly at the air. He sank to his knees.
Annemarie pivoted on the ball of her front foot, sword raised above her head, to come to face the fourth man. He was the last man standing, and he knew it, looking drunkenly at his fellows rolling about in pain or unconcious upon the cold cobblestones, one arm hanging loosely from his side, the other in front of his belt, having done nothing save watch as they had been cast down. There was a hatchet at his belt, his hand inches away from it. His eyes were wide. Annemarie considered splitting his skull, blue eyes staring at the spot between his eyes. He turned and drunkenly ran. Annemarie let him go, letting her sword fall to her side.
The leader was whimpering and sobbing, rocking back and forth upon his knees, his hands interlocked, pressed against the bleeding underside of each his forearms to stem the flow of blood. Annemarie kicked him in the small of his back, spilling him forth onto all fours. He collapsed, his wounded arms unable to support him, with a yelp of pain as they were forced for an instant to bear the generous weight of his frame. Annemarie came to stand imperiously in front of him. "I hope you have enough coin saved in order to pay someone to feed you, røvhul. Run."
He obliged, lacking the dignity to say anything in return, scampering off, his footfalls fading into the darkness as he ran and did not look back.
With a feeling of satisfaction, Annemarie looked about, sheathing her sword. The second man had already crawled away and staggered into the night himself in a different direction, seeming to want no more of this, leaving a trail of blood in the street from his broken, bleeding nose. The first one was still laying there facedown, berift of movement. Annemarie pitied him - he would have not just the hangover to deal with, but a headache from a head-wound atop it.
Once she had ascertained her victory, she finally turned to look into the alleyway. It was a dead end, a narrow slit in between two wooden buildings, barely big enough for two men shoulder to shoulder. The light from those few places that were still open this close to curfew was rapidly growing dimmer as more and more bars shut their doors and doused their torches, and she could barely see into it. She squinted until she could see where the shadows blended against one another. To the right side was the shape she had seen earlier, pressed up against the wall behind a barrel left in the alleyway. Annemarie could make out the faint outlines of the figure's legs, curled up tightly against itself in fear. It looked almost misshapen. Annemarie wondered if it was a hunchback, or a leper.
She was surprised when it moved it's legs and peered out from behind the barrel, suddenly throwing it's features into the faint light. It was a woman, with a tattered gray blanket drawn over herself as a makeshift cloak. It was so dirty that it was no wonder she was merely a shadow. The woman wasn't gray haired yet, but she was flea-bitten and emaciated, clearly having lived on the streets for too long. A second, tiny face peered out, even more fear in it's eyes, and Annemarie realized that the lumpy appearance of her makeshift cloak was because she had the child hidden under it as well - young, healthy, his face dirty and his hair blonde. He had the look of a child that had already learned never to make a sound in situations like these. Neither of them spoke, staring at her in abject terror.
Annemarie glanced behind her to the faint torchlight coming from up the street and realized that she must cut an imposing silhouette, her own features shadowed and out of view. She stepped backward and turned slightly, so that they could see her better, and gestured to the unconcious man at her feet. "They're gone. They won't trouble you again."
The woman couldn't seem to believe it, at first, by the disbelief that flitted her over her features, immediately replaced by wariness. When Annemarie stepped aside, though, her disbelief broke. She looked ready to cry as she bolted from the alley, gathering up the child and running up the street - but she paused next to the swordswoman, and offered her a watery-eyed look of complete and utter gratitude. Then she was gone into the night.
Annemarie watched her go, going to reclaim her cloak, dust it off and drape it around herself. No sooner had it touched her shoulders than she heard a deep, resounding gong that shook her teeth, sweeping out over the night. She turned and looked up at the distant, dim light of the half-completed tower of the Kölner Dom, silhouetting itself against the city skyline, a distant beacon to the poor quarters of the city Annemarie was in.
How was it ringing? It's towers weren't even complete yet and wouldn't be for years. How could it be heard with such force from so far away? These questions flitted through Annemarie's mind, but one was strangely more centered in her mind as she heard the waves of sound washing over her.
Why was it ringing at midnight? Church bells never rang at midnight...
Annemarie pondered this question for a few minutes in the dark street, long after the brief, loud reverberations of the bell faded into the night, glancing from the cathedral's incomplete tower back to her still-unconcious victim, and was still pondering it as she resumed her walk. She did not believe in God, sacreligious as such a thing would be to say out loud, and she doubted many of those more poor and berift in this part of Koln did either. Yet she felt strangely content to look at the man's crumpled body and the trails of blood to either side of them, as if some higher power had commanded them to meet such a fate.
After a while, she turned and left, leaving the night still behind her, breathing in the cool air as it wove it's way in a gentle breeze through the alleyways and streets, and decided that it didn't matter.