Nicholas put his back to the tree, his head hitting the bark of the pine as he recoiled. A man clutched a dagger to his throat, pressing it so tight that Nicholas was certain he had drawn blood.
“The coins,” the armed man said.
Nicholas swallowed, but not without hesitation. He felt the pressure of the blade intensify, his Adam’s apple barely clearing its jagged edge. Nicholas struggled to speak, and the assailant seemed to notice this. He positioned the dagger next to Nicholas’s ear and gripped his jaw with the other hand.
“Talk,” he said, clenching his teeth.
The man’s brown hair rested along the front of his shoulder as he bent over and moved closer. Spit hung from a small patch of his goatee.
Nicholas shook his head. “I have none.”
His adversary looked down at the small purse dangling from Nicholas’s leather belt. The man’s grasp eased as he switched the blade to his other hand and rummaged through the sack.
“Only partly true,” he said. “You have none on you, but I know you hid them during my pursuit.”
Nicholas lifted his head slightly, about to speak, but his foe slammed it against the unforgiving wood. His vision blurred and, despite the initial stabbing of pain, he felt a numbing sensation inside. Nicholas lingered on the edge of consciousness, so he considered the next sight to be nothing more than a hallucination.
A shape appeared, situated several yards behind his opposition. Silent and undetected. Perhaps a ghost. The form swelled in size, but he couldn’t tell if it was expanding or growing closer. Sensing something amiss, the goon released Nicholas and turned.
“I’m sure we can resolve this without doing battle,” the figure said.
Nicholas’s vision cleared a bit, enough for him to see a knight standing before them. He wore a helmet with a black mask around his eyes, chain mail extending all the way from his head to the waist. The knight placed a hand on his hilt.
“The Shadow Knight,” Nicholas whispered.
The bandit didn’t bother with diplomacy. Instead, he seized an axe from his belt to accompany the blade.
“I understand your caution,” the knight said. “One can never be too careful, but my offer to settle this by other means still stands.”
The man deliberated, but only for a few seconds. Rocking back and forth on each foot, he seemed to be planning his attack rather than contemplating whether to fight. Leading with the dagger, he raised the axe over his head, maneuvering for a surprise blow. However, the knight quickly drew his sword and swiped at the man, eliminating one of the threats. A hand, and the axe that it held, dropped to the ground. The thief released the dagger and clutched his severed wrist.
“Do you concede?” the knight said.
The mugger screamed, a combination of agony and rage. Unarmed, he lunged at the knight, but the cavalier brought a swift end to the fight. Nicholas watched as the sword sunk into the man’s torso and punched through his back. Even with metal inside him, he managed to grip the knight’s chain mail, pulling the mask from his face before eventually falling to his knees.
Nicholas wondered if it was an illusion. “Peter?”
The knight pulled the sword from the dead man and sheathed it. He stepped forward, offering a sad smile. “Yes. It is me.”
“All of this time?”
Peter grinned, resting a hand on Nicholas’s shoulder. “It is my duty.” Peter’s face tightened, and he turned away.
“I consider myself a righteous man,” Peter said with his back to Nicholas. “But I have rules.”
“What do you mean? What rules?”
Peter faced him again, closing the gap between them. “Few have ever seen my face, and those who did never lived to tell about it.”
“But you know me, Peter.”
Peter bobbed his head. “As I did the others.” He rested a hand on the back of Nicholas’s neck. “But do not fret, my friend. You are different from the rest.”