Chapter 1 - I've sat on this for far too long, so I'll just get it out there. As always, this is a FIRST DRAFT.
Trip stumbled on through the night. Thick clouds covered the moon but ahead, through the gloom, he could see his goal; the village of Monk’s Retreat, at once close and far away to his twelve-year-old mind. He took a deep breath and pushed away his weariness, concentrating instead on heading towards the small town. An especially sharp gust of wind blew through him and he shivered, hugging his simple brown robe closer. Not for the first time, he wished that the monastery had believed in warmer clothing. Or better weapons.
He closed his eyes for a moment against the stinging wind and saw again the flames, heard the screaming, the thuds as fists and feet collided with unforgiving bark. With a gasp, Trip opened his eyes wide and pushed the memory back down in his mind. The town was closer now, the first houses only a minute’s walk away. A few lights were on, mostly outside lamps that had been neglected, enough light to see by. The nearest house, tiny in size, had a small outside shed and Trip took the final few metres at a dead run. He sank down, back against the wooden wall, nestled out of the wind’s fury for just a minute and took stock. Touching his fingers to his neck he found the cold metal of the necklace’s chain, still securely around his neck. His hand went to his belt where the small money pouch, all that he had been able to take in the burning chaos, was securely tied onto the rope belt he wore. Finally he checked the bindings on his sandals; one of them was near to breaking, a souvenir of the day’s walk.
Trip closed his eyes and consulted his memory. He had once seen a map of Monk’s Retreat, and the house he wanted was south of the town hall. He stuck his head round the corner, feeling the wind blasting at his stubbled head, and checked his position. The clouds chose that moment to clear and, in the sudden light from the full moon, Trip spotted the large building that could only be the town hall. He stood and prepared himself for one last push.
In the end, it was easy to work out which house he was looking for. It had a large sign outside, just readable in the moonlight: ‘Home of the Hero, Victor the Victorious’. He had arrived. Hopping over the low picket fence, Trip crept up to the front door and tried the handle. It was locked, of course, and he moved to one of the windows, their white frames grey in the darkness. The first window was locked too, and the second, but the third was slightly open. He put his fingers under the window and lifted. The wood was old, paint flaking off on his fingers, but it opened.
The house was quiet and warm. Somewhere a clock was ticking. Trip stood in silence until he was sure there wasn’t a single sound in the house. He started to move through the rooms, footsteps quiet on the rugs that covered the floor. The sitting-room had a neatly-laid table with several chairs on one side of the room, then a kitchen with everything hung up on hooks. A sword rack took up part of one wall, the blades glinting in the darkness. Trip felt something bang against his shin and he smothered a yelp. His heart fluttered against his ribs and he was certain that it could be heard for miles.
The stairs went up to the second floor, and the boy nearly started up them, but something told him that waking the owner of this house at random in the middle of the night wouldn’t be a sensible idea. He’d read enough to know that… Under the stairs, however, there was a hidey-hole filled with two travelling cases and a crate, leaving just enough room for one thin boy to wedge himself in. He settled down onto the hard floor to wait. He closed his eyes and relaxed.
There was silence for a moment, then a scratching sound made him snap open his eyes and gasp. Suddenly the darkness was banished as a match was lit, destroying his night sight and briefly illuminating a face that looked like it had been carved out of stone. The flame lit a huge cigar and then was waved out, leaving just the red circle of smouldering tobacco floating in the darkness. The sound of a sucking breath came, then another.
The voice sounded like a bag of gravel trying to speak. The man - Victor, it had to be - sucked on the cigar again and blew out a long stream of smoke.
“I said, that it?”
Trip moistened his lips. “Um, what?”
The red cigar tip didn’t move. “You break into my house, you don’t take anythin’, you don’t damage anythin’, then you hide under the stairs. That all you plan to do?”
Trip nodded, then remembered it was dark. “Yes, sir. Are you… are you Victor?”
“Maybe I am.”
“Get to the point. You here to, what, laugh at the old man? Surprise me?”
Trip blinked. This wasn’t going at all how he had imagined. “I’m here to… hire you. I need your help.”
There was a long pause. The floor seemed to be getting less comfortable by the second but Trip suddenly realised he couldn’t get up gracefully, wedged in as he was. The red tip burned orange for a moment, then dulled.
“I’m retired. Get out.”
“A… something has been following me since last night. It-”
“You deaf, boy? Get out.” The red tip rose as the man stood.
“I have money! I’ll pay you!”
Another pause, then another match flared. This time it lit a small oil lamp which wicked into life and cast a warm glow around the room. The man with the match sat back and looked down at Trip.
“You’re naught but a boy. Why are you here?” he asked, frowning.
“I’m from the monastery up on the mountain. Yesterday… the day before, I’m not sure, we were attacked, I think. They’re all…” Trip said, then suddenly he was finding it hard to talk past the lump in his throat. “They’re all dead,” he finished. Tears blurred his vision as he swallowed painfully.
Victor stubbed his cigar out onto a saucer on the table and stood up. He moved menacingly towards Trip and suddenly thrust out a hand. The boy barely had time to wince and close his eyes.