Tornmile: Part 5

Tornmile
Part V: A Question of Honour

The hiss of water striking against hot stone, which was a constant feature of the chamber in which Mishak sat, felt like the knelling of the Great Bell in the silence that stretched itself between the two men. The chamber, by the gaoler’s own admission, was a torture chamber. It was lit with four great braziers, one in each corner, giving a bright orange light to the dark stone. Off to one side there was a furnace, burning almost white hot, in which a few branding irons and rods were plunged. The rest of the space was taken up by a large desk, which was the reason Mishak was in the chamber, rather than for torture. Mishak thought however, looking at the man with hair greying at the temples and a nose too big for his face on the other side of the desk, that he was in here for torture, albeit a rather more subtle kind than thumbscrews and nail-pliers. The lawyer shuffled the parchments in front of him and stared at Mishak, waiting. Mishak stared into middle distance, watching a spider laboriously building a web on the vaulted ceiling. Water continued to hiss on the hot stone and sweat ran down Mishak’s face. Hiss. Hiss. Hiss.

“Why did you kill Lord Minham?” the lawyer repeated.

“I told you, I didn’t kill him,” Mishak said in a bored voice, without taking his eye off the spider.

The lawyer sighed a little.

“It really would help me defend you if you had a reason for killing him. If he made inappropriate advances on a family member or provoked you in some way.”

“I had no reason to kill him. I didn’t kill him.”

Mishak was bored of answering that question now. He had, at first, wanted to tell anyone who would listen, anyone who could hear him. He had yelled himself hoarse, his voice reverberating in his dank cell and echoing down the corridor. Other prisoners had jeered and some had even joined in his cry, though only to appeal their own innocence rather than showing solidarity with Mishak. The guards had hit him with clubs and the hafts of spears, but he’d cried his innocence all the same. The problem was, as he had reflected bleakly, no one believed him. Even the man sitting opposite, who had been appointed to defend Mishak in the Justiciars’ Court, did not believe that he was innocent.

“You were found in Lord Minham’s bedchamber, your clothing and hands slick with blood. How can you say that you didn’t kill him?”

“Because I didn’t.”

“Who did kill him then?”

“How should I know? I’ve told you, I was late…”

“Late for work,” the lawyer interrupted, “Yes, you said that to begin with. And yet no one saw you coming in late. The cook didn’t see you and his statement says that Lord Minham’s breakfast was taken at the normal time – breakfast you admit to carrying to his lordship’s room. The only person who appears to be certain that you were late for work is you, and the blood on your hands makes it unlikely that the Justiciars will believe you.”

“My mother can vouch that I left home late.”

“And yet she is nowhere to be found.”

Mishak cut short his response and returned his attention to the spider. It had succeeded in creating the outline of a web now – fat droplets of water hung from the silk like morning dew on blades of grass. Where are you, Mother? She very rarely left the street except to go to the market, and from the display at breakfast that morning, she had been already this week. It was unlikely she would need to go again. Besides, it was well past sun down and she would home by now for sure.

“Is it likely that I could overpower and kill two guards set to protect Lord Minham?” Mishak asked, breaking the silence.

“They were certainly dead when you were arrested,” the lawyer responded, “and you Stamms are known for your martial prowess. The conquering of Stammland would have taken less time were it not so.”

“By all the gods!” Mishak thundered, striking his fist down on the desk. The lawyer’s parchments ruffled in the breeze from the blow. “I was raised in Tornmile for most of my life.”

“And yet when you were arrested you spoke in Stammish, I believe?”

Mishak merely nodded.

“What was it that you said?”

“Mi lyto, otec,” Mishak said. His native tongue felt like ashes in his mouth.

“And that means what?” the lawyer prompted, eyebrows raised, quill hovering over the parchment.

“ ‘I’m sorry, father’.“

“That’s a strange thing to say. Were you apologising for your crime, perhaps? Remorse may lead to a lighter sentence.”

“After a fashion. I was apologising to my father for not honouring the life-oath he made to Lord Minham.”

“The what? What is a life oath?”

“What do you think it is?” Mishak asked, exasperated, “It means Lord Minham saved my father’s life and in return, to keep his honour, my father pledged his family to his lordship’s service until his lordship died or his life was saved by my family’s intervention. Another reason why I wouldn’t kill him.”

“But Lord Minham’s death would end your servitude. That’s a motive.”

“I thought your job was to defend me?”

“It is. I am simply trying to demonstrate that the Justiciars won’t believe that you didn’t kill Lord Minham. Even if you didn’t, the evidence suggests you did. The best you can hope for is that you have a good reason for having killed him, so that the sentence might be lighter.”

“You mean they might behead me, rather than hang me?” Mishak sneered at him in disgust, “I’ve told you, I’ve no reason for doing it because I didn’t do it. Find my mother and she’ll vouch I was late. The blood was pig’s blood from the abattoir near the market. I didn’t kill Lord Minham.”

“Very well,” the lawyer said, gathering his parchments together as he stood. “I see you are unchangeable. May the Emperor of Heaven – or whatever gods you Stamms believe in – have mercy on you, because the Justiciars certainly won’t.”

The lawyer crossed to the metal studded oak door and rapped sharply on the wood. It swung slowly open on creaking hinges and then the lawyer was gone, the door slamming shut behind him. Mishak stood up in exasperation; his chair was thrown backwards and toppled over. Beginning to pace he called the lawyer every Stammish insult he could think of. It made him feel slightly better. All they have to do is find my mother; is that so hard? She could not have come far and news travelled fast even in a city the size of Tornmile. Lord Minham had been popular and well-respected even by the common folk who were allowed no hand in politics and who, therefore, the lords generally ignored.

This brought Mishak back to the other question that had plagued him since he had been thrown into the Spire’s dungeons: who had killed Lord Minham? It was more than clearing his own name and keeping himself from a long drop on a short rope. It was a question of honour. His father had made the life-oath. No matter who killed his lordship it was the oath-sworn family’s duty to apprehend the culprit and see their victim was avenged. That was the other reason he needed them to find his mother; even if her testimony could not free him from the Justiciar’s doom, then she would have to undertake the duties of the life-oath. Mishak’s father was dead and Mishak was his only child. If he was unable to fulfil the oath, to restore his family’s honour, then she would have to in turn. Men might be the first in line to fulfil a life-oath, but no one was exempt.

He tried to work out who would want Lord Minham dead. The man had been a good soldier and a good lord. He had been a stickler for discipline, but his punishments were always fit to the crime. He had been a fair man, respected by the lords. There were those who didn’t agree with him, of course. Mishak had served wine at enough meetings to have no illusions about that. With the king infirm, the nobles locked themselves in a struggle for regency and they did not always confine that struggle to speeches before the Council and private meetings with possible allies. Amongst Mishak’s duties was tasting food and drink to ensure that they were not poisoned, but it had always been a precaution. No one had ever tried to poison Lord Minham – Misha would not be here if they had – and Minham himself had never served poisoned wine. He had killed his enemies on the battlefield or in the duelling circle, not by subterfuge. He had been a man of honour; what other sort of man would have saved the life of a Stamm auxiliary. It had gained him a servant for life, true, but he could hardly have known about the life-oath before he had done it. The Empire wasn’t interested in the practices of the Stamms, just their land and its resources. Even leaving subterfuge aside it had been a long time since Lord Minham had taken to either the battlefield or the duelling circle. Mishak had kept his lordship’s armour clean and his weapons in good condition as part of his duties, but the most Lord Minham carried was a sword on ceremonial occasions and a dagger for personal protection the rest of the time.

A political enemy seemed the most likely candidate for Minham’s murderer, or the architect of the deed in any case, but Mishak could not think of anyone with a decent enough reason. There were other ways of removing Minham from power than death, most of which were much more subtle.

Questions nagged at him about the events of the morning. Who had alerted the guards who came to arrest him? Where had the cook been and why was he saying that the breakfast was collected as usual? Had someone bribed the cook, or threatened him? Perhaps it had all been arranged to set Mishak in the frame, but why? What gain was there in implicating a servant? It took the suspicion off whoever was actually responsible, of course, but there were subtler ways to kill a man without anyone being implicated, ways that didn’t involve killing two guards into the bargain. Anyone could have challenged Minham to a duel; he had been a good soldier in his day, but he had also been getting older. A duel would be an honourable way to kill him, poison would be dishonourable but subtle. Lord Minham had me to taste for poison, though. Poison would not be easy. There was no way of making sure Minham was the victim and a dead servant would put him on his guard. Better to let someone take the blame and make sure Minham died, and who would believe the word of a Stamm pleading innocence in a Tornmilian court? Minham, in accepting Mishak’s father’s life-oath, had given his enemies the perfect scapegoat for his murder. It would also reflect badly on the Stamms within the city, make them seem worse than they were already regarded. A Stamm employed by a highly regarded and prominent nobleman repays his lord’s generosity by murdering him. That was good politics if you wanted the people to turn against the Stamms. But who would want that? Stammland was one of the only provinces free from sedition, and people already mistrusted Stamms despite it.

It was infuriating. Question after question pounded in Mishak’s brain and every one he could answer brought three more that he could not. He paced back and forth in the torture chamber, ignoring the sweat pouring from him in the heat of the furnace, turning each question over in his mind.

He was interrupted by the sound of keys in the lock and the grating squeal of the door being swung open. An elderly woman was admitted by the hawk-faced gaoler.  She was hunched over, the identifying shawl of a kitchen workers slung over her shoulders. A covered basket swung wildly in her left hand. The kitchen workers often brought food to the prisoners in the dungeons.

“I’m not hungry,” Mishak said by way of a dismissal. There was too much to think about to eat. Too little time to eat as well.

“I haven’t brought food.”

He wheeled on the spot and a smile broke over his face as the woman straightened and removed the bonnet from her head.

“Mother! Where have you been?”

He leapt forward and threw his arms around, laughing, feeling the beginnings of tears forming in his eyes with happiness. She threw him off as if his touch burned her and she did not laugh. Her face was stone, hard eyes reflecting the white-orange glow of the furnace.

“Get your paws off me, Vucari,” she said fiercely, “it is bad enough breathing the same air as you.”

“Turnskin?” he translated, frowning at her, “What do you mean? I have betrayed no one.”

“You have betrayed your Stamm, your family, and the warrior who was your father. I came to tell you that and for this.”

She thrust her arm forward and Mishak reeled away in pain as the point of the arrow in her hand pierced his shoulder just below the collar bone. He tried to grab at her arm but caught only the fringe of her shawl, pulling it from her shoulders. A lightning stab of pain came as his mother broke the shaft away, leaving the arrowhead still imbedded in his flesh. He leaned, breathing heavily against the table, fumbling at the wound. He tried to grip the metal in his shoulder, but the blood made his fingers slippery.

His mother turned from furnace, a branding iron in her hand. The metal tip of the iron, a dull point like a poker, glowed orange and white, causing an eerie light to play on her face. She forced it against his wound, searing the flesh closed over the arrowhead. Mishak screamed.

“A silver point from a shaft of ash,” she said, “that should keep you from turning your skin long enough for them to hang you.”

She turned away from him, retrieved the basket, and started for the door. He reached after her, grabbed her sleeve, and tried to pull her towards him.

“Mother, please! I’m your son!”

She sliced the back of his hand with her belt knife, causing him to relinquish his grip on her sleeve with a gasp, and then she spat in his face.

“Nemám syna,” she said in Stammish: I have no son.

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