….. a noise, like someone or something was thrashing their way through the undergrowth toward him. Heart racing he began to take involuntary steps backward as the sound drew nearer. A clump of bushes at the edge of the forest first began to move and then to shake violently; seconds later a boy brandishing a machete hacked his way clear of the undergrowth, staggered and fell to the sand. Quickly the boy scrambled to his feet and with a blood curdling cry began to run toward him…..

….. slowly he rotated the skull in his hands; feeling its weight, noting the pattern of the sutures, running his fingers across the rough bone. Briefly, with a shudder, he wondered what fate might have befallen this unfortunate soul then, poking his fingers in through the eye sockets, he began to pluck out the now damp straw which had been used to pad the inside of the cavity…..

.…. as he neared the end of the bay the full bright moon broke through the heavy cloud casting an eerie shaft of light on the dark, foreboding rock of the cliff face. Moving closer he saw that the light had picked out a narrow crack in the rock, something he had failed to notice earlier in the day. As he approached the opening the moonlight revealed something else, clearly imprinted in the sand were a set of footprints which led right up to the gap and disappeared inside…..

….. the boy watched the old man, small and slight in stature, approach slowly up the street toward him, stopping to buy fruit and vegetables from the market stalls he passed along the way. Then the man crossed to the quieter side of the street and turned up one of the many narrow alleyways typical of the port area.

 

Idly the boy watched the man’s progress. Then suddenly the alleyway had his full attention. Somebody had stepped from the shadows and blocked the old man’s progress. Although the boy could not hear what was being said it was obvious this was some sort of altercation, he suspected the old man was being robbed but he could not be sure.

 

The boy looked around for somebody who might help but everyone was caught up in their own world. He ran across to the other side of the street and, keeping to the shadows, he started to make his way slowly and carefully up the alley. Before he reached the pair he stopped. The boy could now see clearly that the assailant, a tall, gaunt young man, had a dagger and was holding it outstretched threateningly whilst gesticulating with his free hand.

Slowly the old man reached inside his dirty, brown robe and withdrew a small leather bag tied shut at the top. He then held out the bag but as the younger man reached forward to grab it the old man dropped it to the ground between them. The assailant drew back his hand as if he were about to strike out with the knife but stopped mid-motion.

From his position the boy was unable to see clearly what was happening but there appeared to be some sort of stand-off. After what seemed like an eternity the young man cursed then turned and fled back up the alleyway.

 

Without turning around the old man spoke, ‘you may come out now, the danger has passed.’ 

The boy looked around, there was nobody else in the alley to whom the man could be talking. Slowly he stepped from the shadows. ‘Do you need help?’ he asked tentatively.

The old man, his back still turned, appeared to dwell on his answer for some time before simply replying 'no.'

‘Are you hurt?’

Again the man seemed to consider his answer for a long time, ‘no.’

Uncertainly the boy made his way to the front of the man giving him as wide a berth as the narrow alleyway would allow. At close sight the man appeared even older then he had first thought. His face was deeply lined and grey stubble covered his head but his eyes, sharp and alert, seemed to belie his age.

‘Could you please retrieve my bag.’

Cautiously the boy moved toward the old man and lent forward to pick up the small bag. As he did so the man cuffed him on the back of the head. ‘Always keep your eyes on your opponent’ he barked.

 

The boy staggered back, surprised rather than hurt.

‘My bag’.

Warily the boy once again lent forward and felt around on the ground for the bag, his eyes never leaving the old man. Once he had it he snatched it up and leapt back out of range. The old man held out his hand. The boy lent forward to return it then thought better of it and gently threw the bag for the old man to catch. Seemingly in recognition rather than thanks the old man gave the slightest nod of his head.

‘Why did the thief not take the bag’ the boy blurted out.

‘He changed his mind.’

‘Why?', but no reply was forthcoming. ‘Why?’ the boy persisted, ‘he was much younger than you.’

‘Your point being?’ questioned the man.

‘He could easily have beaten you and taken the bag, but he did not, why?’

‘He made a wise decision.’

‘What do you mean?’ the boy asked in frustration.

‘Enough talking’ the old man replied and continued up the alleyway.....

And finally a draft piece that didn’t make it through the final edit but may well find a place in books 2 or 3 which I’m working on a the moment:

 

The boy always found weapons training evoked excitement and fear in equal measure. Students would line-up and be allocated a partner then, at the sound of a bell, both would take a weapon from a large cloth bag and fight until one submitted.

 

The bag contained a variety of wooden training weapons of all shapes and sizes; staffs as tall as a man, fighting sticks the length of your arm, axes and daggers and also a few everyday objects that might be used as improvised weapons. But, just to make things a little bit more challenging, the bag did not contain enough weapons for all the students and it was placed at the other end of the beach….. so, when the bell rang, a no holds barred race ensued across the sand as the students vied to secure a weapon of some sort, of any sort.

He was not sure why but the boy particularly remembered one occasion when his opponent was a tall, lean youth a few years older then himself whom he had never fought before. Looking around the boy knew he did not have the speed to outrun many of the students who happened to be training that day and as the bell rang the first thing he did was to use his foot to clip the heels of his opponent sending the youth sprawling on the sand. As he drew level with another student the boy shoulder barged him causing the child to stumble and fall.

 

The boy saw his next target a short distance ahead and got ready to pick him off before what speed he had failed him. Just as he was getting ready to catch the young child's heels however somebody crashed into his legs bringing him down hard to the sand. Before the boy could react his attacker was back on her feet, standing on his hand for good measure as she headed for the weapons bag. Scrambling back to his feet the boy resigned himself to the fact that on this occasion, and not for the first time, he would have no weapon.

 

The boy's opponent that day had however fared better, much better; the youth shot him a knowing smirk as he twirled a fighting stick in his right hand whilst in his outstretched left he held a dagger. The boy knew that if he stayed at range the youth would be able to pick him off easily with painful stick strikes but if he got in close, to where the stick was less effective, the dagger would be waiting. As if to prove the point the youth feinted high with the stick then brought it low in a slashing arc that struck the boy hard to the side of the knee; the cloth padding wrapped around the tip of the stick doing little to lessen the impact. Seconds later the youth whipped the stick across his body catching the boy on the arm as he advanced. In the heat of the contest the boy was all but immune to the effect of the strikes but knew from past experience that he would feel each and every one when this was over.

 

The boy calmed his mind; a high strike whistled past his head and as his opponent prepared to launch a follow up attack the boy seized his opportunity and lunged forward throwing a handful of sand in the youth's face. Instincts overcame training and momentarily the youth shut his eyes and turned away. Before his opponent could recover the boy had overpowered and disarmed him and forced a submission. Triumphant the boy looked to the teacher in the hope of approval but to his disappointment the old man was watching another contest.