Tornmile: Part 6

Part VI: The Blacksmith’s Striker

Concealed in the canopy of a low hanging tree, Johreel lowered the leather tubed telescope from his eye and tried to shift to a less uncomfortable position. He never quite seemed to get used to sitting in trees; they were few and far between in the sands of his homeland, and those that did have the tenacity to survive in the environment were comprised of spiky leaves and vicious thorns which did little to facilitate their use as places of rest. The trees in the Empire were different, but Johreel found them intolerable. The bark chafed his and he was forced to move too often to keep his concentration. Atop a building in the city he could stay seated for hours at a time, watching the intending victim, studying their movements, and working out the best way to fulfil the terms of the contract, but out in the countryside the only suitable vantage points were more often than not trees and it irked him that he never found one that was remotely comfortable.

His annoyance at his hiding place was heightened by the dullness of the contract he had come to fulfil. Whilst his usual deployment was in the city of Tornmile itself, high profile contracts like the one he had fulfilled in the Spire necessitated time away from the city to allow the dust to settle on any investigation by the civic authorities. The Watch were useless and the nobility’s personal retinues even more so, but there was always the possibility that two high profile kills with the same hallmarks would lead to questions, and the Assassin’s Guild did not like questions. They liked the questioners even less and more than once an Assassin that had drawn attention to the Guild had been left to dance a gallows’ jig to satisfy what passed for justice and to exact the price of having questioners silenced.

On return to the Guild new orders had been waiting for him and he groaned inwardly as he read the parchments left for him. Wayward Watch captains, business rivals, and elderly relatives that minor nobles felt were spending far too long with just one foot in the grave were the usual doldrums he was offered after contracts of high importance, but the orders this time were a joke, if not an actual insult. He could not refuse the orders and maintain his preferment for more important missions in the city, however, and so he had set out for the small town of Tubal to kill the local blacksmith.

A blacksmith! It wasn’t right. As he sat in the midst of the leaves straining to find a position that didn’t make his limbs cramp after five minutes, he tried to work out who would possibly order the removal of a blacksmith. As far as Johreel could tell from watching the man there was nothing remarkable about him. Even he, trained as a butcher’s apprentice, could make weapons better than this blacksmith could, and the majority of the target’s trade was in horseshoes and nails. Of course, someone must have paid, else there would be no contract, but Johreel couldn’t help thinking that whoever wanted this blacksmith dead could just have walked into the workshop and pushed his face into the forge. It would look enough like an accident for most people’s curiosities and the workshop’s location in the forest, close to wood to keep the fires stoked with charcoal, meant that there would be no witnesses. A child could have committed this murder. The Devil Child was not pleased.

The sun would be down soon, though, and then he could strike and be done with the whole affair. It was a few hours’ travel back to the city, but that would pass quickly enough, and hopefully the contract waiting for him at the other end would be worth this pointless excursion. In the meantime, he adjusted his position once more and checked the array of weapons he had brought with him. The distraction powders were safe in a pouch at his belt, though he hardly thought he’d need those tonight. There were no guards and no other members of the household. His long knives were not even spread with his favoured Najhayya venom, which was essential in making sure the merest scratch would kill, but less necessary where there was little chance of being interrupted. In addition to those he had brought with him a short recurve composite bow, currently cased in leather and hanging from a branch just above his shoulder with a quiver of arrows. This was as much in case of needing to stay more than one night and therefore venturing away from the smithy into the woods to hunt as it was in being a weapon. It had a disadvantage in making more sound than a straight bow and in that the method of its construction from horn, wood, and sinew meant that it was more susceptible to damage from moisture, but it gave a stronger shot for its size and was less cumbersome in close surroundings. Besides which, he had never seen one made outside of Abboral, and he found his native weapons gave him an edge over the Tornmilian guards.

By the time he had finished checking his weaponry, the sun had begun to sink below the horizon, sending long shadows over the clearing he sat in. Small bats whirled about the trees hunting insects and roosting birds ruffled feathers in the treetops. The forge was still hot within the blacksmith’s workshop, but he had retired from work in the early evening and sat reading by a window. From his vantage point, Johreel could see the majority of the one storey house, choosing this tree for the shot it afforded at the carved wooden bed in the corner.

Before too long the blacksmith rose, putting out the lamp above the table at which he had been reading. The house, aside from the dull orange glow of the forge, was thrown into darkness, and Johreel tensed in anticipation. Not long now. The shuffle of the blacksmith finding his way to bed was the only sound he heard, filtering out the small sounds of animal life in the forest around the smithy. When the blacksmith seemed to have come to rest, Johreel reached the bow-case from the branch above his head and slowly slid the bow out, checking the flex of it.

It was in perfect condition, though he had hardly expected otherwise. He leaned it against the trunk of the tree and stringed it, the movement by now second nature. Selecting a pointed bodkin rather than a broadhead, he nocked the arrow loosely and shuffled forward on the branch to peer through the dense canopy. The branch was wide enough to allow him to crouch here, as he had done during his reconnaissance. Now he dropped into a crouch that allowed him a solid base to fire from, cursing the long hours in the tree as his stiff muscles protested. He drove those protests away, concentrating on his breath and mentally measuring the distance to the target. A middling shot, but made more difficult by the darkness. He could only make out vague shapes in the house, rather than see his target, but he had spent long hours rehearsing where to fire to avoid the window frame and strike the centre of the bed. He had made more difficult shots than this.

He took several short breaths in succession, then pulled in a larger one, holding it as he reached full draw. He exhaled as he fired, heard the sharp twang of the bow’s release; it had been smooth. He listened for the sound of the arrow striking home, and heard a soft thud followed by a small splintering of wood. There was no cry or scream, which meant he had struck well. Instant death. How many of his fellows could have made that shot? Not many, he would have wagered, if it were not forbidden. He had no desire for a repeat of God’s punishment for his last offence.

Forcing the cramp from his limbs he collected together his supplies and weaponry, unstringing and re-casing the bow, and placing the majority of his things in a pack. The climb to the ground gave him the opportunity to make his muscles stretch and he relished it, though the climb was over too soon for him to derive much enjoyment from it. He dropped soundlessly to the ground, deposited the supply pack at the base of the trunk, and made his way to the building in a leisurely crouch. Whilst he was certain of his marksmanship, Guild rules meant he had to confirm the elimination by sight, and the arrow was too well crafted to leave in the body of a rustic blacksmith.

Mounting the lintel, he moved over to the bed where he could clearly see the white fletching on the arrow at the top of the shaft, protruding from the sheet covered figure in the bed. He pulled the arrow free with a firm tug and examined it in the low light to see if it was reusable. The point had not been damaged and the shaft was intact. Something was puzzling though; there was no trace of blood on the arrowhead. He sniffed it cautiously. It smelled not of blood or viscera, but faintly of grain. A decoy? He tucked the arrow into his belt and drew one of his curved knives, sliding it into the covered part of the bed. It ripped through bedclothes and then slipped too easily into what was beyond, unbalancing him. He pulled his hand back with a jerk to right himself; the sound of grain scattering on the floor beside him that followed was unmistakeable. There had been no kill, which could mean only one thing.

Johreel rolled right a second before a large lump hammer pounded into the bed frame, smashing it to splinters. Without the roll, his head might have been a pulp of bloody bone shards on the floor. The blacksmith roared as the hammer struck the wood and Johreel scrambled past him, giving himself time to prepare his curved blade. It would be useless against the thick haft of the hammer or in blocking the head itself, but any opening would be enough to punch into the blacksmith’s flesh. For the moment, though, Johreel focused on regrouping and facing the strong armed swings of the hammer. The smith was heavily built, muscles enlarged from working the forge day after day.

“I knew you would come, devil,” the blacksmith roared, “as soon as I heard of Minham’s death. But your masters are mistaken. I have not had Durandal since it left my forge.”

“I may be a devil, but I am no thief,” Johreel countered, sidestepping a blow that splintered the door frame. What was the smith talking about?

The man came on relentlessly, talk done now, swinging the hammer towards Johreel’s head and he was forced backwards, trying to avoid being struck and finding no opportunity for a counter strike. Cool metal pressed into his flesh from behind, a solid obstructing mass. The anvil. The hammer came towards him; I am no iron! Johreel pushed himself flat onto the anvil, sending a pair of tongs clanging to the floor, trying to get the other side of the metal mass, striking uselessly at the smith’s shoulders with his feet.

He did not get clear in time. The forge light in the blacksmith’s eye made him seem demented as he swung the hammer down directly onto Johreel’s left hand, shattering the bones between hammer and anvil. Johreel roared in pain, a half-strangled scream fighting for dominion over his voice. The blacksmith brought the hammer up, ready to deliver another devastating blow. As it came down, Johreel snaked his right hand across his body, the force of the blow wrenching the curved blade from his grip even as it ripped through the blacksmith’s wrist, scraping noisily on the bone. The blacksmith bellowed, dropping the hammer, which thudded into the floor, cracking the stone beneath it. Seizing the initiative, Johreel sank a fist into the man’s neck, crushing his windpipe and stopping the roar. Grappling with the neck of the man’s hand, he pushed his legs upwards into the man’s hips, forcing him over.

A searing sound, like horse flesh dropped into a hot pan, told Johreel that he had found his mark. Scrabbling free of the blacksmith’s body, he rolled left, snatching up the hammer ready for another attack. There was no need; the blacksmith’s body was limp, slumped against the forge, his face lying on the coals. Thick smoke furled upwards with the stench of cooking meat. It reminded Johreel of pig flesh being cooked, a smell abhorrent to anyone raised in Abboral. Stumbling backwards to lean on the counter behind him, Johreel lay the hammer down and watched, dazed, what was left of the smith’s face sizzling on the coals. Just push his face into the forge. A child could do it. Johreel laughed manically, and then sucked in deep breaths of the putrid air. His injured arm sent pain stabbing up his arm, but he could do little for it here. He tried to move the fingers back but they would not without the help of his right hand, and that brought loud cracking sounds and double the pain.

What is Durandal? Why did the smith think I had come for it? What did it have to do with Minham? He pulled his blade free of the man’s wrist and washed it in the water butt used for cooling newly finished metalwork. The smith must have been mistaken, that was the only explanation. Whatever his connection to Minham, the Assassin’s Guild never took anything from their victims, except their lives. That was enough. As Johreel threw open the workshop doors with his one good hand and felt the cool night air on his face, he looked back at the smith, dead over the forge. That was more than enough.

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