The continued celebration made the enclave louder than the others he had visited. It was nearly impossible for him to hear what people around him were saying as he passed by. The crowd was thick enough that just moving through it without running into people was a challenge. Without knowing it, his avoidance maneuvers eventually took him to the outskirts of the enclave, near the edge of the city itself. He breathed a bit more easily there, enjoying the open space. The din of the crowd rumbled in the background.
That was how they took him by surprise. The first blow knocked him to the ground, his face landing hard on dirty packed snow. He managed to roll over and see three people standing over him. All had the green and white Elein stripes in their braids.
“Keeps poking around,” one of them said. He was younger than Hirrek and not as big. “Like he’s got a right to know something.”
“You’d think he’d learned by now that nobody wants to talk with him,” said another. He was older and standing back from the other two a bit.
“People can talk to whomever they want,” Hirrek said, getting ready to stand up.
The third one, about Hirrek’s age and even bigger than he was, kicked him in the side. “How’s that for talking?”
The first one laughed. The older one didn’t. Hirrek made a note of that as he crumpled to the snow and tried to catch his breath.
“If you have nothing to say, that’s fine,” Hirrek said after a few moments, managing to make it to his hands and knees. “But you have no right to keep me from talking to others.”
“Who gave you the right to start asking?” asked the second man. The third one kicked Hirrek again, sending him back to the ground, face first.
Hirrek spat dirty snow from his mouth and did everything possible to hide the pain he’d endured so far. “The Maker gave me that right, as she did for all of you.” He didn’t expect that to work, but wanted to see what they said at the mention of the Maker of Worlds.
“A blasphemer as well,” said the first man.
“One goes along with the other,” said the third.
“You see?” said the older man. He looked to be the leader of this little group. “This is what you get when you give yourself over to the blasphemy of one god. This one’s from Clan Dost, not that you’d know it to look at him. He’s free to do whatever he wants, but what right does he have to tell us?”
“Yeah!” the other two said.
“He thinks just because his father pretends he’s jeyn now he can go anywhere he likes.”
“My father doesn’t think he’s jeyn, and doesn’t pretend to be,” Hirrek said, slowly getting back to his hands and knees.
“What does he think he is, then?” asked the second man.
“He thinks he’s doing his best for his people,” Hirrek said, speaking slowly and trying to get a good feeling for where his attackers were. The two younger ones were on either side of him now, while the older man stood a few feet in front of him. They weren’t thinking this through very well. “The best for the Neldathi people. All of them.”
“He’s not got the right,” the third man said, before he tried to kick Hirrek one more time.
This time he was ready. Hirrek lunged forward just as the kick came. The man’s foot glanced harmlessly off his lower leg while Hirrek sprang on the older man. He was taken completely by surprise and was driven to the ground by Hirrek’s charge. Hirrek wasted little time exploiting his advantage, punching him twice in the face and knocking him out.
He stood and readied himself for the others, but neither had come to the aid of their master. They stood with fists raised, poised on the balls of their feet, but neither moved.
“I don’t have any business with you,” Hirrek said, eyes flitting back and forth between the two men. “But him, I need to talk to.” He kicked at the foot of their master. “That means either you can leave or I can make you leave, since I don’t need either one of you to make it through the night. Understand?”
It was an empty threat. He was outnumbered and wasn’t carrying a weapon. He didn’t want to be known as walking through the city interrogating people with a knife in his hand, so he’d intentionally gone out without anything threatening in his possession. He’d give anything to have one secreted away in one of his furs. He just hoped that the others thought he was armed.
They looked at each other, then dropped their fists and took a few steps back.
“Don’t want to have nothing to do with you,” the first one said. “Right?”
“Right,” said the big one.
They turned and walked off together, hurrying but not running back to the crowd, the noise, and the fire.
Hirrek grabbed the other man, still thoroughly unconscious, under each arm and began to drag him through the snow toward the center of the city.