Jacob's Ladder - Part 3

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Chapter 3

They called him the Bully Beggar and though some might know his true name as Armston none of them knew his story. The streets of Renstown ran with a dozen tales of how he lost his leg. A bear in the Red Pine forest, a man trap on Duke Lundley's estate, a grievous wound taken in the Small Lords' War ... many others. All lies. He had been nine, a big lad even then, always climbing trees. The splinter hadn't been the largest he ever got and it came out easily enough. But the puncture site had turned red, started to leak puss, then the flesh had soured. What had been truly remarkable was that he survived the butcher who took his leg, and the nightmare of four further butcheries over the years as he grew and the bone tried to emerge.

"What sort of idiot flashes silver in the river-runs?" Armston could hear the anger in his own voice. "What sort of idiot?" The idiot's money was in his pocket now and he was washing the idiot's blood from his hands, but even so he was angry. He wasn't a murderer. He collected the Rope's cut from Renstown's beggars. He'd twist arms, break noses. And yes sometimes a beggar would die. They were none of them healthy to start with. But he never set out to murder. The Rope had people for that. Benam, who stood beside him waiting for his share, had a taste for killing sure enough. Maybe one day the Rope would give him the long knife and set him loose. Armston didn't think so. Benam might have a taste for it but one eye wasn't enough for the long knife. One eye made him a bad beggar rather than a good killer. Still, Benam enjoyed taking a life and Armston didn't. Which was why he felt angry that the idiot had put him in such a position. Obviously that much silver couldn't be allowed to stagger out of the river-runs in the pocket of a man who didn't look as if he would last another day. That wound in his side had looked as if it should have killed him long before.

"So." Benam stared at the dirty palm he'd held out between them.

"So, damn well wait." Armston leaned on his crutch, took his hands from the bowl and shook the water from them. A single candle lit the hut and it stood over by the back wall where the roof didn't leak. His wet hands still looked bloody but the feeble light played all manner of tricks on the eye.

"Don't want to still be waiting when they find the body." Benam kept his hand out. "I'll be over on the east side drinking in the tinker taverns, not standing here with the Beggar Bully and blood on my hands." His eyes flitted to Armston's fingers.

"God below. It's me with his blood all over. Should have been you though." Armston wiped both hands on his shirt where it strained across his belly. "Shit on it." He fished into his pocket and tried to find a crown by touch but the coins were of all sizes. "He brought out a copper then a silver. "Looks Sverlander to me." He tossed it to Benam. "Don't get taken for a raider!"

Benam fumbled the coin to the floor, swearing. One-eyed men make poor catches. "I'll be back in a few days when I've turned this into fun and used it up." He shouldered his way through the door, back out into the night and the rain.

Armston stood a moment, leaning on his crutch. He felt out of sorts, still angry but with the anger having slipped its moorings and no longer attached to the dead man lying in the alley behind Dannat's place. He went to the back of the hut and held his hands out to the candle. A scarlet stain had spread across both palms and down the fingers. The blood had washed away but his skin remained marked. It was hardly evidence but he didn't want to be around the area come daylight either. The body would bring the marshal's lads and if their suspicion fell on him then paying them off would halve his profit.

Benam's plan didn't sound too bad. Still rubbing at his hands Armston pushed out into the street. "All yours." The family waiting in the rain began to file back in behind him. Ugly Mary was one of the more successful beggars along the river-runs, never late giving over the Rope's share to Armston and yet what she kept of her takings managed to put a roof over her head. It even managed to put some food in the bellies of the three scrawny kids who crowded back into the hut behind her.

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