Bitter 267

As father and daughter approached the outskirts of New Town, Britta heard the unmistakable sound of marching feet up ahead.

It was unlikely to be the dwarves since they had a propensity for hiding in trees. And the Garbolum thugs didn’t strike her as the type to do anything in an orderly fashion. Which left one other option.

“We should hide,” said Dad before Britta could. Apparently he wasn’t keen on bumping into the law, either.

They snuck behind one of the shacks that surrounded the north entrance to the town. There was a garden of sorts, but the only thing growing in it were some broken dolls stuck in the ground like toy zombies trying to climb out of their graves.

They ducked low by a fence that had too many holes in it to hide them effectively, and watched as a line of guards, two across and six deep, marched past and then disappeared down the road.

Dad let out a relieved breath. “They’re gone. Good thing they didn’t spot us. I’m a wanted man in these parts.”

Britta felt a compulsion to tell him it was her they were after, not him, but she restrained herself. “What do they want you for?”

“For being the hero this town needs, not the one—”

“Dad. Please. No movie quotes.”

“Okay, okay. Keep an eye out for more patrols. We should be okay once we’re out of town. We’ll stay off the road and go through these backyards.”

Dad rose and moved across the garden in a stoop. Britta copied him, even though she was much shorter standing than he was stooping. It was the first nighttime this town—this world—had experienced, so there was no way to know what to expect, or what was normal. Guards everywhere? On a set route, only? Specifically looking for someone or just generally keeping the peace?

She would have to find a way to get herself off the most wanted list and then it wouldn’t matter. In the meantime, if they were quick and didn’t make any noise, there was a good chance they could leave town without being spotted.

There was a thud. It sounded like it had come from the roof of the house they were scurrying past. Britta knew it would be a bad idea to look, but she did it anyway. Three silhouettes looked down at her. Three short, fat silhouettes. No, they weren’t fat. They were stout.

“Friends of yours?” asked Dad.

“Not really. Dwarf ninjas.”

Dad nearly choked on his own tongue. “You’re joking,” he managed to say when he got his breathing back under control.

“Keep it down, Dad. The guards might come back.”

The dwarves jumped down, landing softly. They made hardly any sound and were surprisingly graceful, like hippos in tutus. They each produced two axes and twirled them expertly as they spread out.

There was a blur and Dad had his bow in his hand, an arrow already in place. He fired it at the dwarf in the middle, then followed it with two more.

The dwarf brought his two axes together in a whirling motion and the arrows ricocheted off into the dark.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” said Dad.

“Dad!” said Britta in an appalled whisper. Somehow, bad words coming out of her father’s mouth made them ten times worse.

“Oh, sorry, sweetheart. Heat of the moment. Don’t tell your mother.”

“Don’t call me sweetheart in the middle of a fight.”

“You called me Dad!”

“Okay, okay, Bruce. What do we do, now?”

The dwarves closed in from different angles, too close for a bow to be very effective.

Dad dropped the bow and reached behind him, under his cape, and drew two short swords. They were curved and glinted menacingly in the starlight.

“I thought you only fought long range,” said Britta.

“First rule of being a hero is always be modest about what you can do. Makes it much more impressive when you reveal your true awesomeness.”

He swung the blades around his head and moved towards the dwarves, spinning and slicing. There was a barrage of attacks and counterattacks. Parries that erupted in sparks, and far too much noise.

“Can you keep it down?” Britta whispered hoarsely from the sidelines. “The guards will hear.”

One of the dwarves retreated a little and leaned over the fence to look down the road. “All clear,” he said in a Scottish brogue. He kept watch as the other two circled Dad. Then they started fighting again, but this time they stopped short of making contact.

If a blow was about to be parried, both sides would draw back their weapons as though they had struck each other. It turned into a dance, with rapid blows falling, but never landing.

Each side reacted honestly to strikes, even to kicks and punches that were thrown in and pulled short. It was odd, a game played for real played as a game. It was also kind of mesmerising.

Dad was completely committed, his blades constantly moving, holding off both dwarves at the same time. He did look pretty awesome, but there was no way she was going to tell him that. He’d be unbearable. Even more than normal.

He managed to push one of the dwarves’ arms out to either side and had an opening. His sword plunged at the exposed chest, and stopped with the tip just about touching.

The dwarf looked down, accepted his fate, and fell to the ground, theatrically clutching the non-existent wound. He was unharmed, but technically, he was dead.

The third dwarf jumped back into the fight to take the place of his fallen comrade. The fallen comrade bounced back from the dead and took up lookout duty, standing to the side like a chess piece removed from the board.

The fight resumed, silent and relying on the honour system.

“They’re coming back!” called out the dwarf now keeping watch.

Everyone froze, only their eyes moving, looking for suggestions. The sound of feet came closer. Here was a time when a decent illusionist spell would have come in very handy, thought Britta. Shame she didn’t have any.

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