Tornmile: Part 24

Tornmile
Part XXIV: A Knife in the Dark

Johreel stood on the edge of the building and adjusted his cloak so that it didn’t stream in the wind. Any stray movement against the night sky – even one as dark as this – might well attract the attention of those below, and that was the last thing Johreel wanted. Usually he would not have worn a cloak for this sort of work, but his idea depended upon it. He wanted to appear just like any other inhabitant of the Tanneries when the time came, but until then he wanted to avoid being seen at all. He could feel the rough stone beneath his soft-soled boot; feel the change in the wind between the solid building and the drop to the pavement below. It was not quite far enough for it to be a quick death if he fell. Not that falling was likely. Not for Johreel anyway. From the gateway on the street below came the flickering light of guttering torches. He wondered if the gatekeepers had fallen asleep. If they had then it meant that no one was likely to emerge from the gates and that he could not work his plan. No. It had to be tonight.

He had left Seren to sleep in the room he had hired at an inn not that far away. The inn – The Shieldmaiden – seemed a respectable sort of place when compared with The Pride of Tornmile, but there again so did most inns. The innkeeper had asked a reasonable rate for the room, served high quality wine, and left people alone, all traits that Johreel liked in an innkeeper. Seren had kept watch on this gate herself throughout the afternoon and the early evening and had nothing to report when Johreel had come to relieve her. No one had been in or out and she asked whether he was sure that this was Ferrer’s place. He was certain it was, but the lack of evidence of that fact worried her. There would have been confirmation had she attempted to get closer to the compound, as he had done, but he had instructed her to remain at a distance, and she had complied with the order as far as he could tell.

If she had not she was keeping the information close to her chest, but there was no evidence to suggest she had moved from the vantage point he had originally selected. Everything was the same as when he had left her to secure their accommodation, including the tiny indicators that he had set up before leaving. It was possible that she knew what they were and avoided them, but he did not think so. It was a frustration that he had to set them up at all, but he couldn’t be sure that she was trustworthy without evidence and even if he was sure, that was a good time to take precautions. She didn’t act like she was spying on him for Serkan or that she was testing him on behalf of the Magister, but her sudden appointment to the contract and her knowledge of the records he had been looking at made Johreel suspicious. That and many years working for the Order: maybe Serkan was right; maybe I am paranoid. Even if she was not a spy or part of a test, she could still be looking for a way back into the Magister’s good books. Being the Magister’s Dagger gave him some measure of protection from the ambition of those below, but for all its power to turn aside blades, it could not stop an arrow loosed at close range. The right archer at the right time and his rank would count for nothing. Seren could be planning her shot right at this moment.

Fighting the urge to look behind him – there was a level of paranoia that was life saving, and then there were levels beyond – Johreel watched for the faintest change in the torchlight. It had to be tonight. Tonight he could investigate more closely before Seren had the chance to, and retain the edge on his fellow Assassin. You could just slit her throat, a voice said at the back of Johreel’s head. Impractical: if she is a spy then it’s better to know she’s spy and feed her false information. If she’s a test then killing her at the wrong time will be as much a failure as letting her kill me. If she’s simply looking for advancement by usurping my position then she’s only playing by the rules. The voice laughed softly to itself. What rules?

He cursed inwardly at it, but knew it had a point. The Order kept working because recruits seldom could get advantage on those above them; the more experienced were better able to protect themselves than the skill of those below could overcome. However, not all recruits learnt at the same rate and there was nothing to say that advancement had to be by the Magister’s choice alone. If your rivals were dead then there was no one else to choose. Of course, the Order also owned its members – could have them killed by any of thousands of others at any one time; Assassins walked the knife edge between self promotion and self protection. Johreel was not sure that it helped them fulfil their contracts more easily.

 Johreel’s musing on the state of the Order was cut short by a shadow thrown across the guttering torchlight. He made sure that the cloak wasn’t moving in the wind and bent low so that his profile wasn’t visible against the night sky. Even on a dark night with clouds across the moon, a man stood on a roof could draw the eye, especially if you were used to working in the dark and the people who worked for Ferrer generally were. Soon after, the shadows of five men stretched ahead of the archway below Johreel and shortly afterwards their owners emerged from the shade of the building. They were all well built, tall men, and they moved slowly, almost like a badger emerging from a den. Johreel crept along the edge of the building, taking careful steps as he followed them down the street.

They turned into an alleyway and Johreel kept pace with them, watching them from the safety of the roof. Five was too many. Ideally he would wait for one on his own, but he knew that was unlikely. Ferrer sent men out to make sure that night time travellers were relieved of the burdens of their coin purses and it was unlikely that one man would do that alone. Even the softest merchant’s boy could land a hard enough blow to down one man and gain enough time to run away. One two man group and one of three men seemed more likely.

Sure enough, once they emerged from the alleyway the men split up into two groups. Two of them turned to the right, walking away down the street and keeping to the shadows. Johreel could not follow them without descending from the building and it was much too early for that. It would have to be the three; it was the luck of the draw. They moved to the left, heading along the back wall of the compound they had come from and then following the street as it twisted away towards the east wall. Johreel crept along after them, sizing them up. One of them was taller than the rest, but by far the thinnest. There was a bulge at his hip where he carried a cudgel or a club – Johreel could not tell which – and he had a knife in his left boot. The second man was stocky – short, but well built. He had two axes tucked behind his belt and constantly checked the street ahead and behind to see that they weren’t being followed. Clearly, he was in charge of this little group of thieves. The third man was a little taller than the second, which made him look less stocky. He didn’t appear to be carrying any weapons; that made him the most dangerous opponent. This sort of man didn’t go unarmed in the night. If the weapons were not visible, even to Johreel’s trained eye, then they were well concealed and he knew how to use them. He would have to be first.

Johreel waited until they came to a halt where three streets joined each other. Here they were most likely to encounter people passing by and therefore most likely to find a good mark. The tall fellow moved into the shadows under the eaves of a low roofed house, so that he was not visible from the street. The stocky man leant against a post supporting a protruding second storey of a tailor’s shop where he could be seen by anyone passing along the three streets and the man without any weapons walked down a side alley just below Johreel’s position.

That was a piece of luck. Moving to the edge of the building, Johreel looked down. The man concealed himself, pressing his body flat against the wall of the alley – clearly he was waiting for a signal that a mark had been found. Opening one of the pouches at his belt, Johreel took out a spool of wound thread and then took a small vial from another of the pouches. Unwinding the thread, which was the thinnest he could get, he watched as the tail end gradually lowered to a spot just above the cutpurse’s head. Then, Johreel took the stopper from the vial and poured a few drops onto the thread, watching as they ran down its length. The first drop fell on the top of the cutpurse’s head, causing him to look up. The second, following soon after the first, caught him on the forehead, almost dead between the eyes. The third fell directly into the man’s open mouth. For a moment the man’s eyes seemed to fix on Johreel and he squinted trying to make out the shape that he was seeing above the building’s edge. Then, with a slight thud, he slumped to the floor, still concealed from the view of anyone in the street.

Johreel wound the spool to gather the thread and returned it to his belt pouch, along with the vial of Najhayya venom. Turning, he lowered himself over the edge of the building and began to climb down. Finding hand holds was not easy, but he had done this too many times before for that to be a problem. His mind strayed to Kamahl and the bloody end in the desert as it always did when he climbed. One day he would find those cultists and make such an end of them that God would consider his debt paid. One day.

 Before that, though, he had work to do. Dropping silently into the alleyway, feet inches from the unmoving form of the cutpurse, he rifled through the man’s pockets. As he had suspected, he found that the man was armed. Concealed within specially stitched pockets, Johreel found several daggers and some throwing knives. The edges of all the blades were razor keen. Tucking them into his belt, he moved away from the cutpurse, keeping in the shadow of the building. Opposite him the stocky man still stood, smoking a pipe and seeming to take his ease with his frame supported by the post. To Johreel’s left, the tall man still waited in the shadows. Johreel knew where he was, but it would be difficult to get to him without either one of them seeing, and it would be nigh on impossible to drop down from above because of the low roof.

Instead, Johreel walked out into the centre of the square, feigning to have come from one of the houses. He looked left and right, paused briefly as he looked towards the stocky man, and then pulled the hood of the cloak up and drew it about him as if he did not wish to be seen. The stocky man did not move, but Johreel knew all the man’s attention was now focused on him. Johreel faked a slight limp to reassure the stocky man that he would not be a difficult mark. The man hailed him as he passed.

“You don’t know of a tavern round here, do you?”

“What’s that?” Johreel asked, using the hood of the cloak to keep his face in shadow, though he could do little to disguise his accented speech. The man noticed the accent, because he started speaking slower and louder.

“I said, do…you…know…of…a…tavern…around…here?”

The scuff of a boot from behind him told Johreel that the tall man was advancing, club at the ready. No doubt he intended to strike Johreel on the head from behind and then the three would go through his purses. Johreel had no intention of that happening. A quick spin on his feet and a flick of the wrist sent a throwing knife into the throat of the tall man, who grasped at it in surprise before falling on his back. The stocky man reached for one of the axes at his back, but Johreel pushed forward, using all of his weight to force the man against the post, trapping his arm. There was a sound that reminded Johreel of ice forcing the branches of a tree to burst apart and the stocky man howled in pain. His arm had broken. Johreel put his own good hand around the man’s throat and lifted him against the post. He did not struggle, just looked wide eyed in terror and grimaced as pain passed through him.

“You work for Dunstan Ferrer,” Johreel said.

The man nodded, as much as he could under Johreel’s grip.

“Three men escaped from the Spire dungeons two nights ago. Two of them also worked for Ferrer. I want to know where they are.”

The man shook his head. Johreel squeezed and the man’s eyes bulged as if they would pop from his head. He flailed at Johreel’s hand with his free arm. Relaxing his grip, Johreel allowed the man enough room to breathe. And talk.

“I don’t know,” he gasped, sucking gulps of air in whilst he could, “they haven’t come to the compound. We had an attack – a woman – killed some of the boys. Ferrer told them to stay out for a night or two.”

“Where are they staying?”

“I don’t know.”

Johreel dropped the man to his feet and leant forward so that his broken arm swung free of his body. The bone had gone through the skin just below the elbow and the arm hung at an awkward angle. Drawing one of the daggers he’d taken from the first man, Johreel slid the cold steel between the protruding arm and the broken skin. Slowly, he began twisting the blade, separating the two. The stocky man screamed.

“Where are they staying?”

“Please! I don’t know. There are safe houses, but I don’t know which one. Please!”

“You know where they are?”

The man did not answer; saliva ran from his mouth and his face was slick with sweat. Johreel twisted the blade again – a sharper twist this time, but only for a moment.

“Yes! I know! I know! I’ll tell you!”

“Yes,” Johreel said, drawing the blade back slowly, “you will tell me everything.”

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