This scene is a flashback of the first meeting between Taliesin Wolfe (I Loved a Rogue) and Frederick Evan “Saint” Sterling (The Rogue). After this, the pair of young rogues are inseparable for two years, traveling about Britain doing odd jobs here and there, fighting for money, and generally getting into as much trouble as possible. I loved writing this scene; it’s my favorite scene between two of my heroes. But novels are complex creations, and even if a scene is perfect it doesn’t necessarily belong in the book. I’m thrilled to be able to share it with you here. 🙂
Knuckles and lip bloodied, bare feet raw, head aching and every joint sore from months of not enough food and too much drink, he had been sitting against a damp, cold stone cell wall in a local jail somewhere in east Devon when a laughing voice spoke to him.
“You look like your favorite dog bit you.”
“Sod off.” Taliesin had turned his head away from the voice. He had known he was not alone when the constable tossed him into this fetid cellar. But he had shared jail cells with other men before. It wasn’t ever worth speaking to them; most of his cellmates had been louts and fools. So much for the classical education to which the Reverend Martin Caulfield had treated him.
Boots crunched on the grimy straw.
“Come a step closer,” he said with weary resolve, “and I’ll tear your arm off. I don’t care if they leave me in here for another three years because of it.”
“More likely to string you up for it, I daresay,” his cellmate said far too jauntily. Taliesin swung his head around and squinted up through a swollen eye. Tall, with squared shoulders, the man stood in a ready stance, his right boot forward of his left. Taliesin did not mistake the strength in that stance and those arms. And even with half his sight he could tell that the other fellow had a quick eye. Intelligent.
Never a good idea to mix it up with a fighter who had smarts.
He didn’t care.
“You’ll want to move away now,” he growled, not looking up.
“It was a girl, wasn’t it?” He screwed up his brow. “Don’t tell me it was a girl. I’ll have to disrespect you from the start. Then where will we be for the next three weeks?”
Taliesin narrowed his one good eye. The fellow wasn’t much older than him. And he’d gotten three weeks in this pit, not the three months they’d given Taliesin. Green eyes and blond hair were useful that way.
“Why are you speaking to me?”
“I like a puzzle,” his cellmate said. “And I’ve nothing better to do in this bloody hell hole.” He settled down on the cold floor nearby. “I don’t have misery like yours to keep me occupied, after all.”
“What did you do to get in here?”
Taliesin turned his head to look at him.
“Dueling.” He laughed. “Rather, I dueled while my opponent soiled his trousers. And yet here I am while he’s run off to Mama to nurse his wounds.” He shook his head with rueful good humor. Taliesin wanted to punch him.
“Did you injure him?”
“A knick here. A scratch there. He deserved it.”
With effort and not a little pain, Taliesin lifted a brow.
Emerald eyes gleamed. “He insulted my doublet.”
“You’re not wearing a doublet.”
“All the more reason the insult cut me gravely.”
Taliesin laughed. It had been an age since he’d laughed. Since that day in the heat of summer when he had done what he should not have.
His cellmate lifted a broad hand striped with sinew and clapped him on the shoulder. Taliesin bit back the pain.
“Don’t fret, my friend,” he said. “You will win her in the end. The best men always do.”
“How do you come to think I’m among those?”
He considered for a moment. “My old fencing master used to say, ‘You can see a man’s character in his eyes and the set of his shoulders.’”
“Is that so?”
“I have never known him to be wrong.”
“May be that you’re both wrong in this case.”
“I doubt it. Do you have a name?”
“And yet you’re the one that looks like he has been bitten.” He chuckled at his own witticism. Taliesin again contemplated punching him.
“Evan Saint.” The stranger put his right hand in front of Taliesin’s chest.
Taliesin ignored it and closed his eyes. He did not trust the gesture. No gorgio had ever offered his hand to shake. No self-preserving Rom would ever accept such a gesture anyway.
But he wasn’t one of those. Everything he had ever done proved it.
Saint withdrew his hand but did not move away. “She’s probably waiting patiently at the caravan for your return. Or is her family settled in? A farmer’s daughter, or a smith’s? Good folk, blacksmiths.”
Taliesin did not immediately reply. “She’s not one of my kind.”
Saint turned his head and studied him again. “Ah. I see.”
For a moment, only the soft scuffling of a rat across the cell marked the silence.
“What you need, my friend,” Saint said, “is a plan of attack.”
“You’re a fool.”
“And you speak to a man like you are not what you are.”
“Already forgotten about the tearing off your arm I mentioned, I guess. Not too smart, are you?”
Saint laughed. Then, with certainty: “You are thinking about revenge. The other bloke.”
“Who says there’s another bloke?”
“There is always another bloke. But revenge is not the direction you want to take.”
“Think I may have already figured that out on my own.”
“Is that what you call beating the constable’s fair-haired, peachy-cheeked ass of a nephew to a bloody pulp out there? I saw it all through the window.”
It came too close to the truth. There had been gin too, but that had been secondary.
Saint shook his head. “Revenge never gets a man anywhere.”
“And you’d know that?”
“I would. I do. My old master used to say, ‘The only man you have to prove yourself to is you.’”
“I’ll wager your old master wasn’t—” he bit off his words.
Saint studied him. “You are not the usual run of them.”
“Say another word and I’ll break that arm in ten places before I tear it off.”
“I don’t mean any disrespect to your people. But you speak almost like a gentleman, and you’ve got enough pride to make a good swordsman. I could teach you.”
Taliesin didn’t have anything to say to that. He had never fought with anything but his fists, and not even those until ten months ago. He had never had reason to fight before.
Now he wanted to fight the entire world.
Saint stood up and dusted the straw from his breeches. “Take it or leave it. I’ve got nothing better to do for three weeks. And neither do you.” He stared down at him for a minute. “Do you read?”
“Better than you, I’ll merit.” In English, French and Latin. Fat lot of good it would ever do him. Nobody would give a clerking position to a Rom.
Saint pulled a book out of his pocket, unfolded it, and tossed it onto the ground between them. Taliesin glanced down at the straw. The title on the tattered cover read The Declaration of the Rights of Citizens, and Other Diverse Treatises on The Equality of All Peoples, Regardless of Race, Creed, or Color of Skin.
“Read that,” Saint said. “Then we can talk about your plan of attack.”
Taliesin turned the book over in his bloodied hands. “I don’t need a plan of attack.” No sword or high-minded philosophy could ever overcome the truth: He could not have her. He had always known it. He just hadn’t known, when brought to the point of it, how hard it would be to accept that.
But he had nothing better to do, and a whole head of anger bursting to fight.
With sticks that the jail keeper provided, Saint taught him the rudiments of swordplay. The keeper watched and kept score, happy when the Gypsy lost each time. But the sticks made it awkward and when that entertainment grew thin, Saint taught him tricks of fisticuffs that Taliesin had not known. His uncle was not a fighter—only a hitter—and Taliesin had spent most of his days for three seasons a year in the home of a country vicar. He had never had anyone to show him what other boys learned early in life.
When his cellmate’s three weeks came to an end, he shook Taliesin’s hand and promised to return when his time was up. He would bring blades and show him how a real swordsman handled his weapon. Taliesin shrugged off the hand on his shoulder and promptly forgot about him. But nine weeks later when the constable opened the cell door and told him to never come back to their town, Saint was there as promised.
Over the next year Evan Saint taught him to fight with sword, knife, and his fists better than Taliesin had ever dreamed.
But it wasn’t the end of his trouble with the law. Not by far. The weapons did not take away his anger. They simply made it easier to win.
End of scene.
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