The Knight crouched among the ferns, feeling the soft rustle of greenery tickle his underside as he squatted and groaned.
He was still sick. The greatest enemy of the Glorious Empire, the scheming and traitorous dysentery bug, had wormed its way inside him. He groaned again as it emptied him out over the hillside.
Still sick. But it was passing, he reflected, having risen to inspect his handiwork. There was more mucus and less blood now.
He hoped that was a good thing.
The rumbling was growing. He ground his teeth and swore. This wasn't the low, distant rumble of trains, or of a city (or whatever God made in place of cities in Yorkshire), or even of the gluttonous dysentery worm wriggling and thrashing in his gut.
This was the rumble that dogged him wherever he went. The rumble that was alike to an old friend now, or at the least an old colleague.
He felt it, immediate and raging, as it grew in ferocity. Put his hands to his ears and pressed. It helped. Not much. But it helped.
He closed his eyes. Felt his heavy eyelids wipe dust and pollen from his eyes. Blinked.
The rumbling was coming to a crescendo. He ducked, and rolled, awkwardly, one hand drawing up his trousers as he went. He heard his knee groan.
An axe sailed over his head. He reached up, quicker than would seem feasible, and grabbed the shaft. Pulled it.
The figure toppled, crashing into the grassy turf.
The Knight rose, kicking sharply into the assailant's side. There was a squeal, like a stucked pig, and the knight drew his sword.
He drew it with the lightning speed of a gambling shark shuffling a deck of cards on a Mississippi steamer. A bystander privy to both the fast-draw of the Detective and the sword-play of the knight would have perhaps been startled to see so striking a resemblance, though would have noted that while the Detective smiled unflinchingly throughout, the Knight's face was harsh, and set, poker-faced as the Mississippi shark of the preceding analogy.
The sword lashed out, the blade flashing and blurring, driving itself into the assailant's shoulder and turning him over in one swift, savage movement.
The Knight stood, silently, the sword suddenly withdrawn and hanging on his back again, the movement so sudden and so sharp the steel had seemed to jump through the air, rather than trawl through the space from the ruffian's shoulder to the leather sheath at all
He reached into his heavy leather cloak, and drew out a slender, chaffed cigarette. He smoked it, quietly, while the man in the ferns rolled, whining.
The axe was still in his hand. The Knight ignored it.
"Stop rolling," the Knight intoned, solemnly.
The man swore. "Fuck you."
The Knight watched as the man pushed a hand back and forced himself upright. He grimaced, bringing his hand from the grasses to clutch his shoulder, and stopped, horrified.
"I told you," the Knight said, drawling the words slowly, as though thinking about each one before letting it ease out of rough, chipped lips. "There's shit in the ferns."
The man swore again, feverish eyes darting from shoulder to hand, and then back to the ferns. He lunged.
The sword was drawn and arcing through the air before the axe had left the ground. The man squealed again as his the blade nicked his hand, sending the axe spinning through the air and into the coarse shrubs of the hillside.
The Knight held the sword loosely by his side, taking a calm, reflective drag on his cigarette. He looked back to the man.
The man's eyes fixed on the sword. The blade shone, polished and dazzling, scattering sunlight in brilliant rays across the man's shoulder as it burped fierce spasms of blood out onto his grubby shirt.
The sword was better kept than anything else the stranger owned. He looked up, and his eyes popped.
The Knight's eyes sparkled with the same, intense ferocity of the sword's blade. It were as though they were one and the same. Both brilliant, dazzling - but sharp, and wicked deadly too.
He nodded, mutely.
"Good," the Knight said, amiably. He turned. "Use ferns. Not the ones covered in shit. Clean your shoulder."
He walked on, ignoring the plaintive bleats of the man as he went past.
A cut-throat. Probably preyed on the more wealthy residents of Yorkshire, the gentry nobility, looking for hunting parties or lone walkers.
Times were getting desperate that they jumped on old men like the Knight.
Robbers like that don't work alone, the Knight knew. He felt almost disappointed that the man's fellows had stayed put, hiding or scuttling off rather than rush to their friend - no doubt the runt of the outfit, or a newer recruit - when he went down.
The rumbling had stopped. Good. He had already heard the man limp away in the other direction, though he didn't turn to check.
There were still four others watching from the ferns. To turn around now would be to look nervous, or unsettled.
He didn't want that. Not that he thought they would try and jump him if he did. Not after the sword-play he'd shown. Sword-play of a kind the Yorkshire dales would not have seen...ever, possibly.
No. He didn't want the other four to see him seem unsettled or nervous because he needed them to spread the word. That there was a stranger among the ferns who didn't fear anything and could use a sword like a Mississippi card shark on a river-boat...