Tornmile: Part 22

Tornmile
Part XXII: A Traitor’s Revenge

Struggling against his bonds without attracting Abelard’s attention was not easy, but Mishak could not sit and allow him to hurt Marthe, Eloi, or Josse. He had less concern for the brothers than for Marthe, since they had shown they were capable of handling extreme situations, killing if it was necessary, but even that didn’t fill him with the hope of rescue with Straton lurking outside. He had the advantage of surprise and the darkness and Mishak could do nothing to help them unless he freed his hands or his mouth. Preferably both.

Abelard paced up and down, deep in his own thought, but he did not seem frustrated or disturbed by Marthe’s lack of appearance. Mishak supposed the man had waited a long time to catch up with her, travelling hard, and so was not averse to waiting a little longer. The trap was set and all he had to do was wait for his prey to wander in. All the pacing did was remind Mishak of the man’s presence and the need to make his efforts to escape small but effective. The bonds at his wrists were tightly drawn; he had to wrench his wrists in their sockets to even move the rope the smallest amount. That had little effect on the tightness; Straton was well versed in stopping people moving.

As time went by, Mishak’s shirt began to stick to his skin; blood trickling from the wound in his shoulder had begun to soak through the material. It was uncomfortable and he shifted uneasily, each movement putting more strain on the already broken stitching. He feared moving too much in case he tore them free completely, which would not aid his attempts to escape. Even if he could get his hands free he might not be able to subdue both Straton and Abelard with his shoulder bleeding profusely; there was always the chance he might pass out from the blood loss before he could get free.

A commotion from the kitchen caused both Mishak and Abelard to look that way: Mishak in concern and Abelard in eagerness. Straton appeared and Abelard’s face dropped, but Mishak’s concern did not disappear. Straton was carrying Eloi slumped over one shoulder and even though Mishak could not see the younger brother’s face, there was no disguising the dark wetness that clung to the top of his head and matted his hair. Following behind was Josse, a few cuts on his face, hands bound in front of his chest and legs tied together so that he could manage only a slow shuffle. His face was lined with rage, teeth bared as they bit down on the gag in his mouth. For all that rage, however, Straton merely dropped Eloi onto the floor and pushed Josse down after him.

Eloi’s face was pale, that was the first thing Mishak noticed, and his eyes were half-closed, whites still visible under the eyelids. The right side of his face was crimson with his own blood and there were deep cuts on his forearms and across his chest. Mishak suspected that Josse had been in the lead as they returned home, and that Eloi saw him surprised by Straton and rushed to his brother’s aid. Wild, angry attacks were likely to get you killed, that was what Lord Minham had always said, and Mishak felt his was looking at the proof. Don’t be dead. Eloi was always there with a ready grin, the soothing balm to his brother’s stonier countenance. Please don’t be dead.

“I hope they did not give you any trouble, Straton?” Abelard asked pointedly.

“None at all, my lord.”

Josse growled from his position kneeling by his brother, but the threat it implied was lost in the muffle of the gag. Straton threw him a look, but Abelard seemed not to notice, he was busy prodding Eloi with a foot.

“You didn’t kill him, did you?”

“He’s not killed, my lord, just made quiet. There’s more blood than there is wound. He’ll be in good enough shape to make a spectacle for the crowd when he’s hanged.”

“He better be, Straton,” Abelard said, fixing the tawny bearded man with a stern look, “or I will have a spare noose that might just slip around your neck.”

Straton flinched visibly, as if the noose were already tightening around his neck, and Mishak found himself wondering whether the man had felt that very sensation before. Strange paths led people to do the bidding of men like Abelard, and that was one of many that could be walked. Cruelty brought fear and fear obedience, but Lord Minham had always said that the obedience would go as soon as the fear did. Show a beaten dog the way to make his master bleed and its loyalty melts like snow. Minham had been a good master.

“I’ll go back to watch for the girl, if that’s all right, my lord?”

Abelard gave only a nod of the head in response; he was too busy looking thoughtfully at Eloi. The man’s breathing was shallow and blood continued to run from the wound on his head and his arms. Josse struggled at his bonds, chewing at the rag tied in his mouth.

“What was that?” Abelard asked, pulling the gag free.

“I said, if he dies, I’ll kill you. But you’ll be last – your whole family will die first and I will make you watch.”

“Quite the temper for an apple picker,” Abelard said, unconcerned, “and loyalty again. Stamms and commoners – you really are a surprising breed. I suppose you’re wondering how I found you?”

“Not really. It’s obvious,” Josse said, looking Abelard directly in the eye, “the Stamm is your man and he told you where we were.”

“Let’s see what he has to say to that, shall we?” Abelard said, smugly, walking behind Mishak and beginning to untie the gag.

“Why bother? He’ll only deny it,” Josse spat.

The feeling of relief as the gag was taken away was immense. Mishak swallowed noisily and tried to wet his mouth to get rid of the taste of the fabric.

“I’m not his man. I’m not anyone’s man,” he pleaded with Josse, whose face was stone, “I would never betray you or Eloi. Or Marthe.”

His pleas were cut off by a guttural roar from Josse.

“Don’t you dare speak her name!” he yelled, pushing himself to his feet, and flinging himself towards Mishak. Despite the bonds on his leg he propelled himself with such rage that the chair was overbalanced, knocking Mishak backwards onto the floor. His head slammed into the floorboards and lights popped in his head. The pain in his shoulder tripled, and he tried to roll Josse from on top of him with his shoulders. The man sat astride him, pushing down on his neck with the rope, clawing at his eyes. Josse eyes were wide with fury and bloody spittle ran from the corners of his mouth, falling onto Mishak’s face.

“I’ll kill you!” Josse screamed, “I’ll kill you.”

“Not until I want you to,” Abelard said, kicking Josse in the shoulder and knocking the man to the ground.

Josse rolled off Mishak and tried to stand, but a kick to the chest from Abelard was enough to knock him backwards against the wall. Mishak sucked in breaths, trying as hard as he could to rid himself of the drowsiness in his limbs. His throat ached and the blood pounded in his ears. How could Josse think he was a traitor? Why did everyone think he was a turncoat? The man’s coldness towards him took shape now – Josse had never trusted him, never thought he was what he seemed. Once he was free and done with Abelard, he would deal with Josse too. The man had tried to kill him and that warranted retaliation.

A sharp whistle from outside drew Mishak’s focus from Josse. Abelard moved towards the kitchen door and concealed himself behind it. From his prone position Mishak could not see into the adjoining room, but he knew what the whistle meant as much as Abelard did. Straton had spotted Marthe returning.

Sure enough, a door opened and closed again in the kitchen and Marthe’s voice drifted into the room. She was singing a song to herself, faintly familiar, but Mishak could not pick out the words. Abelard eased a knife from a scabbard. Marthe bustled into the room, looking into a cloth bag and moving objects about inside it. Then she looked up and saw Mishak’s chair overturned and him lying on his back by the side. Her gaze switched to Josse, slumped against the wall, and then to Eloi, covered in blood by the fireplace. Confusion coloured her features.

Abelard moved forward, knife at the ready, raised slightly above her shoulder as if to bring it to her neck. Mishak tried to warn her, but all that came out was a croaking sound that there was no way she would hear. She did hear something though, because as the knife snaked towards her, she shifted her feet, grabbed Abelard’s wrist and spun him over her shoulder and sprawling onto his back on the floorboards.

“No playing with knives,” she said, twisting his wrist until it crunched loudly and the knife clattered to the floor.

“You bitch!” Abelard roared, but her grip on his wrist and her foot on his shoulder pinioned him so that he couldn’t move.

“What lengths you have gone to see me again,” she said, her words polite and courteous, but her mouth twisted into a smile that made her look quite insane, “I am so flattered.”

Mishak tried to shout again, but still nothing came out. Straton swarmed in from the kitchen, grabbing Marthe around the middle and picking her up, dragging her away from Abelard. She struggled, kicking her legs and flailing her arms to try to beat Straton away, but he held her fast, pulling her arms backwards and wrapping his legs about hers to hold her still. She flicked her head back, but it only thudded uselessly on his chest. Abelard slowly stood, massaging his wrist, which would not bend properly, and approached Marthe.

“You are going to pay for that,” he said, leaning in towards her, “you’re going to pay for that and everything else in full.”

He stuck his face forwards, lips seeking hers. She struggled in vain against Straton’s hold and then Abelard recoiled, massaging his lip where her teeth had sunk into it. She bared her teeth, daring him to try again.

“You know I like a woman with spirit,” he said, leering at her, “but that’s going a little too far. No matter, that isn’t the part of you I’m interested in.”

Mishak fought with his bonds and was surprised when his wrists came apart almost instantly. Being toppled from the chair must have loosened them, but Mishak wasted no time thinking about that. Sweeping Abelard’s knife from the floor, he kicked the back of the man’s knee as hard as he could, causing the man to fall to his knees. Grabbing a fistful of the lord’s hair, he pulled his head back and stabbed the knife into his neck, pulled it free, and then stabbed again, drunk with rage. Blood flowed over his hands.

Straton let go his hold on Marthe’s limbs, and backed away, drawing his short sword. Mishak leapt over the dying lord and Marthe, stabbing the knife forwards to make sure Straton’s sword was kept from Marthe’s back. Instead the sword tore into Mishak’s side, cutting deep. Mishak barely felt it, screaming his rage at the tawny bearded man, cutting open the man’s arm with the knife. Straton tried to pull the sword free, but it had become entangled in Mishak’s blood soaked tunic, and rammed his own blade deep into Straton’s eye. Without a sound, the man fell backwards, pulling Mishak on top of him. They hit the ground with a thud, Mishak rolling onto his back and gulping breaths in. The pain from the sword thrust caught up with him a second later and he clutched at his side, fingers already slippery with blood.

“Mishak!”

Sitting up he looked around. Straton had stayed prone on the floor, the blade still sticking from his eye. The man was dead. A pool of blood circled Abelard’s head like a crimson halo. It was Marthe who had said his name. She was crawling towards him, shaking from head to toe, but smiling all the same. She reached him, tearing the shirt away from his stomach and examining the sword wound.

“You were supposed to be recovering from the last time I had to stitch you up,” she reprimanded, “and at least that time it was me that cut you open.”

“I didn’t betray you,” he said quickly, “I would never do that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Josse said they found you because of me. I swear it isn’t true.”

“It worked then?” Josse said, rubbing his head and staring at the two dead men on the floor.

“You accused me of betraying you all!” Mishak roared.

“Sorry about that,” he said, raising himself slowly to his feet and clutching the wall for support, “I needed to have a reason to attack you, maybe break you loose. Hope I didn’t hurt you too much, but it had to look real.”

“That was your rescue plan?”

“It worked, didn’t it?”

Mishak looked from Josse, struggling to stay upright, to Eloi, still bleeding and unconscious on the floor, and then to Marthe – uninjured, but shaking and bending over the gash in his abdomen. Blood still ran from the broken stitches at his shoulder. Between the three of them, Straton and Abelard lay unmoving.

“Yes,” Mishak said, “I suppose it worked.”

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