Tornmile: Part 28

Tornmile
Part XXVIII: Tokens

“It means you have to die.”

Mishak and Marthe left their seats at the same time, but it was Mishak who got to the man first, bringing the short sword round and knocking the curved dagger from his hands in one deft blow. It clattered against the fireplace and fell to the ground. The man did not move, except to crook an eyebrow as if he had been impressed. Mishak kept a blade’s length away from him, though – close enough to run him through but not close enough to allow him the advantage. Marthe, her dagger shorter than Mishak’s short sword, edged closer to the man.

“Keep back,” Mishak warned.

“You learn quickly, Mishak the Stamm,” the man said, “but you do not think so quickly it seems. I have already told you that if I wanted to kill you I could have done so already. Why would I go to the trouble of discovering a connection I suspected to then kill the man who brought it to my attention?”

“Why do you kill people at all?” Mishak responded.

“Because it was the only option left to me at one time,” the man said, “and because I am very good at it. Why did you kill those men?”

The man pointed towards the bedroom where the bodies of Straton and Abelard were.

“Who says I killed them?”

“I do. Killing is not all I am trained in; I also observe.”

“They threatened Marthe, wanted to hurt her,” Mishak answered honestly.

Out of the corner of his eye, Mishak saw Marthe turn her head and frown at him. What did that mean? He wasn’t sure. There was so much about her that was unclear. Sometimes he wished he could see into her head, read her thoughts, but now was not the time to be worrying about Marthe. He directed his focus back to the man.

“A goat protecting a fox,” the man said, “That is new.”

 “Not many goats kill trained soldiers, never mind lords,” Marthe said, fiercely.

“Just as you say,” the man replied, “but perhaps we should move on from this conversation. I fear we have strayed somewhat from the point, which is that whilst the people who sent me think that you are alive they will hunt you. Therefore, you have to be dead.”

“I have the advantage,” Mishak said, “I’ll decide who does the killing.”

“I don’t think you follow him, Lord-killer,” Marthe said.

The man turned to nod at Marthe, who lowered her dagger and concealed once more in the sleeve of her dress. He frowned at her and she reached for his arm, bringing the short sword down to his side. He was about to ask her what she was doing when she spoke herself, though she addressed the man, who rose from his chair and retrieved the curved blade.

“Which one are you going to take?” she said.

“The Vitelian,” the man said, “he is about the right age and looks the part. Besides, they would never believe that the lord’s throat was cut by my dagger.”

Mishak looked at the curved blade in the man’s hand and had to admit that it looked razor sharp, like it would slice through flesh without leaving more than a cut a hair’s breadth wide. But he didn’t understand what that had to do with Straton’s body, since the man was already dead. Dead. Realisation dawned.

“You’re going to show them Straton’s body and pretend it’s mine,” Mishak said, thinking aloud.

“Yes,” the man said, “though usually an Assassin’s word is more than enough to satisfy a contract, in this case I believe a token would be in order. I have to make sure that I have killed the right man, don’t I?”

The man laughed at this, but he was alone in doing so. Even Marthe, who seemed to have some understanding of how the man’s mind worked didn’t laugh, so Mishak didn’t feel too bad, though he was at a loss. The laughter was short, as it had been before, and then the man’s face returned to its usual unreadable expression. After that, he strode into the other room. Mishak heard a sound that reminded him of the cooks in the Spire cutting cabbages and then the man returned with Straton’s severed head held in one hand. The curved blade had returned to its position behind the man’s belt.

“Do you have a sack?” the man asked, “I believe carrying this may raise suspicion.”

“Of course,” Marthe said.

In a swish of skirts she was gone from the room into the kitchen. Mishak could hear her moving things in the kitchen looking for an appropriate sized sack. The man simply stood there, the severed head in his hand held up by the tawny hair, one lifeless eye staring at Mishak, the other a ruin. I did that. It was not a pleasant thought. He wasn’t a pleasant man. That much was at least true: Straton had been a man who tortured people and killed them without thought of mercy and justice. Besides, he was hurting Marthe. He would kill anyone if it meant that she would be safe. Did that make him as bad as the Assassin?

“Why let me live?” Mishak asked, “You could kill me now and you’d still know what you know. Surely the trail would be colder if I was too. There’s less chance of anyone finding out.”

“That is true,” the man said, “but it is not right. There must be rules, even in what I do, otherwise there are no rules in anything and everything falls apart. And it may be necessary to find you again, if I need more information about Minham and his dealings. There are still a hundred possibilities and I cannot know what they will all entail.”

He frowned a little and clenched his jaw, which was the most Mishak had seen his face do when he was not talking. It was no more than the briefest shadow, though, and the frown was gone as soon as it had appeared. The man raised one eyebrow.

“I assume you have no objections?”

“None at all.”

Marthe returned from the kitchen, a large sack in her hands. It seemed to be half full of something, bulging in the sack’s bottom where it dangled from her hand.

“I half filled it with grain,” she said, handing it to the man, “to give it a better shape.”

“Thank you,” the man said, “that will make life very easy. Have you done this before?”

“No precisely this, no,” Marthe returned, giving the man a cold look.

He seemed not to notice, merely opening the sack and placing the head in it. He shook the sack so that the grain distributed itself around the head, making the features that had pressed against the cloth disappear. Then he made his way over to the door and opened it. He paused on the threshold and looked back.

“You would make a good addition to the Order, little fox,” he said, looking at Marthe, “if you are willing to work hard and stay alive. If you wish to join, head to the abandoned fort on the clifftop and tell them Johreel sent you.”

With that, he was gone out into the night. The door closed behind him, and Mishak felt a great breath slide out of him, as if it had been kept within him since he and the intruder had first spoken. Marthe was looking at the closed door, thoughtfully.

“What’s the matter?” Mishak asked, moving over to her.

“Nothing,” she said, distractedly, “I was just wondering what he meant by a good addition to the Order. You don’t think I’m like him, do you?”

“No,” Mishak said, placing his hands on her arms, “you’re not. You’re not like anyone I’ve ever known.”

She frowned for a moment and then started laughing. It was not quite the response he had expected, though he wasn’t sure really where those words had come from. They were quite true – she was not – but it wasn’t the sort of thing he would usually say aloud. She broke away from him, shaking with the laughter, and covered her mouth, trying to stop herself from laughing.

“I’m sorry,” she said, when she had managed to gain control of herself.

“Something I said?” he asked, feeling like a complete idiot.

“Just the way you said it,” she replied.

She did not elaborate further and didn’t think he could ask her what she meant by that. By all the Gods, she was confounding! Unable to say anything more, he returned to the seat by the fire, staring into the flames. He avoided looking at her – he was bound only to say something more and no doubt that too would be greeted with laughter.

He could feel her watching him, though. She had not moved as far as he could tell, from her position in the centre of the room. She did not speak and after a few moments she moved to Eloi’s unconscious body and began checking him over, kneeling by the man’s head.

“How is he?” Mishak asked, though he could not get much feeling into the words.

“The same,” she said, almost as dully, “but I think his pulse may be a little stronger.”

That was good news, at least. If his strength was returning then perhaps he would wake soon, and that would mean the worst of the injury was over. Mishak worried though that if Eloi did not wake soon, he would never wake. He said nothing to Marthe on the subject – the man was like a brother to her and he didn’t want to upset her. Josse had wanted to stay by his brother’s side, but Marthe had raised her voice only a little and the big man had taken the sleeping draught she had prepared quite meekly, and then fallen into a slumber. She really was like no one he knew.

He looked across at her, still checking over Eloi, making sure the bandages were correctly tied. The man, Johreel, had called her the fox. What had he meant by that and why had he offered her a job? Why had the fox meant so much to Mishak? He closed his eyes, the image of the firelight still dancing before them, and tried to remember what it made him think of. He could see the countryside – a lake and a forest, the howl of wolves around him. There was a bright light in the centre of the forest, shooting into the sky. The images flashed in his mind and became blurred together, until he was not sure what part belonged to what image.

“Go to bed, Lord-killer,” Marthe said, “you can barely keep your eyes open and you need rest.”

He could not contradict that. His wound hurt more than it had done since he’d been stabbed – the kick that Johreel had given him had not been a soft one. The stitches held though as far as he could tell. He thought of asking Marthe to check, of feeling her soft touch on his skin, but he decided against it. Her laughter echoed in his ears. He raised himself from the chair without a word and walked towards the bedroom.

Josse was still deep asleep, untroubled by the second intruder; Mishak wished that he could say the same for himself. He undressed slowly. Taking off his shirt hurt more than he could describe, but the stitches were all in place when he checked them. He kicked off his boots and then got into bed. Thoughts raced through his mind and he wondered if he would be able to sleep at all. Would Johreel’s visit be the end of the Assassins hunting him? What did their interest mean in the long run? Did Minham have Durandal and why was it so important? More than anything, though, his thoughts turned to Marthe and what she was thinking. He stared at the dark ceiling, all thoughts of sleep banished from his mind, and whispered ‘the little fox’ to the night.

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