Berren squirmed and wriggled his fingers, trying to make sure that Sticks didn’t get a better hold of him while at the same time trying to pull himself free and dodge Jerrin’s fist. He saw the next punch coming. Couldn’t get out of the way of it, but managed to lower his head so it caught him square on the skull and probably hurt Jerrin as much as it hurt him. He kicked out at Jerrin’s ankle, but One-Thumb jumped out of the way.
‘Nice, Mouse. Very nice. If I’d known you could fight like this, I’d have made you one of us.’ Jerrin was holding his fist gingerly, rubbing his knuckles. He looked past Berren. ‘Hair! Get over here.’ Slowly, taking his time, Jerrin took a few steps back. He had a piece of string tied around his waist, and tied to that was a small pouch made of leather, ripped and torn and sewn back together badly. One-Thumb’s pouch had an almost religious significance. He’d found it one day a couple of years back, got it fixed up and kept it with him wherever he went. As far as Berren knew, none of the boys had ever seen inside it. Jerrin was opening it now, taking out a wad of cloth and slowly unwrapping something. Awe and anticipation got the better of Berren for a moment and he stopped struggling. He felt the grip on his wrist loosen.
Within the cloth, as Jerrin unwrapped it, something glinted. Something metal with an edge. The magic of the moment passed, replaced by shock and horror. One-Thumb had a knife. Not only did One-Thumb have a knife, but he was going to use it. Berren wanted to scream at him: That’s not how we do it! Hatchet will kill you! Even the militias and the watch didn’t carry blades. City soldiers, the sell-swords who looked out for the city’s rich – the snuffers – they carried steel, but not the ordinary men. Ordinary men carried sticks or clubs. You needed to settle a matter, you settled it with a beating. Sometimes people didn’t get up again after a beating, but usually they did. Usually they learned their lesson and hobbled away. That was the unwritten law of the city.
Blades meant murder. People who carried blades drew attention to themselves. Usually they didn’t last very long. If Hatchet knew that One-Thumb had a knife, he’d have thrown them both into the sea. For a second, Berren was frozen to the spot. He means it. He’s going to kill me.
‘Whoa!’ The gasp came from Sticks, who was always a bit slower to realise what was going on than the others. Berren felt disorientated. Why? Why would Jerrin do something like this? What did I do?
As hard as he could, he wrenched his hand away from Sticks. To his surprise, he broke free. Sticks was still staring at the knife. Jerrin didn’t quite have it in his hand yet. It was a little thing, hardly worthy of the name. The sort of thing a rich man might have used for peeling a piece of fruit. There – that was the sort of thing the thief-taker had taught him, and a fat lot of use it was going to be. There wasn’t much satisfaction in knowing exactly what kind of knife was about to stab you.
He ran. Sticks made a belated grab for him and missed. Jerrin shouted something, swore and lashed out with the knife. Berren felt it catch the flesh of his arm near the shoulder, felt it rip and sting, and then he was past them both and there was only Waddler in his way. He didn’t have time to look at the cut One-Thumb had given him. Didn’t hurt much, so he reckoned it couldn’t have been that bad.
He was still carrying his stupid shirt, rolled tight, wet with sea water. He gave it a quick shake and spun it around a few times. Everyone knew that trick. In a pinch, a wet shirt rolled up tight was as good a weapon as any if you knew what you were doing, and Berren had had plenty of practice. He tried to think of Waddler as a mouse; he started to scream, whirling the shirt around his head. One-Thumb and Sticks were only a few paces behind him, but at least he was free. If Waddler didn’t move out of the way, he’d be able to turn and put up a fight and maybe take out one of Jerrin’s eyes before he got stabbed. Jerrin One-Eye. At least he’d remember how he lost it. Berren didn’t even feel that scared any more. All he felt was anger.
Waddler took one look at him, squealed and scuttled out of the way. Behind Berren, Jerrin bellowed something. Berren didn’t hear what it was, didn’t much care either. The hole out into Trickle Street was right there in front of him. He had a way out. He didn’t need to fight.
He reached the hole and threw himself onto the ground, half sliding, half pulling himself through it and never mind the scratches and the grazes it cost him. Fingers grabbed at his foot. He kicked them away, heaved himself forward, and suddenly he was free. He jumped straight up and ran a few paces and then stopped. Jerrin was there, head through the hole, pulling himself through. Berren screamed at him, turned back and threw a kick at Jerrin’s head that would probably have broken his face if Jerrin hadn’t ducked smartly back again.
‘Come on then, One-Thumb,’ he screamed. ‘Come on out! You want a fight! I’m right here, One-Thumb. Come on! Coward! You whore’s breakfast! You skag! Sailors’ boy! Leper’s dressing! Lady’s handkerchief!’
‘You’re dead!’ shouted One-Thumb from the other side of the wall. ‘You hear me, Mouse? You’re dead. I’m putting the word on you. You ever come to the docks again, you ever come near Loom Street, you ever set foot in Shipwrights, you’re dead.’ His voice dropped low, muttering to the other Harbour Men. Berren couldn’t hear what he said, but he heard running feet. Hair and Sticks probably, heading back around. Waddler didn’t run that fast.
‘Tell you what, Mouse. I’ll pass the knife to Waddler here and you let me come on through and we’ll see who’s the man and who’s just a little boy, eh? Because that’s what you are, Mouse, a little boy. You think you’re so much better than the rest of us, but you’re not. You’re nothing. Thief-taker threw you out, did he? Because you’re street-filth, that’s why. Because you’re one of Khrozus’ boys like Waddler and Hair and no one wants you. You’re the one who’s going to be a skag, Mouse. A Sailors’ boy. Except only for the really ugly sailors.’
The anger was wearing off. Berren started to notice how much his arm hurt. His face too, where Jerrin had hit him. He was having trouble seeing out of that eye now and when he touched his face, the flesh felt puffy and swollen.
He finally stopped to look and see how deep One-Thumb had cut him. Deep, that was the answer. There was blood almost dripping off his fingers. His arm was covered in it. He felt suddenly faint. On the other side of the wall, Jerrin was shouting something at Waddler and Waddler was whining. A moment later, Waddler’s face appeared in the hole. He looked up at Berren, frightened half to death.
‘P… Please don’t hit me…’
He jerked forward as if kicked from the other side. Berren clenched his fists and his toes. He was about to kick Waddler in the face, but stopped himself. In the end, he had nothing against Waddler. Like Sticks, they’d been almost friends not all that long ago. Waddler had a knack for finding food and he always shared if one of the other boys was getting into real trouble. So instead of kicking him, he knelt down.
‘Maybe I’ll come back to settle this and maybe I won’t. This is between me and Jerrin, though. If you see me, you just stay out of my way, that’s all.’
Waddler looked up at him with wide bulging eyes and nodded vigorously. Then Berren turned away and ran, off into the narrow streets that knitted the back end of the sea-docks into the markets district and the Craftsmen’s Quarter behind them. By the time Sticks and Hair came around from the other side, he was long gone.