Tornmile: Part 36

Tornmile
Part XXXVI: A Calling Card

Mishak ran a thumb down the axe head as he and Marthe walked down the streets of the Tanneries, mid-morning sun causing them to squint to see properly. The axe weighed down at his side, but it was more comforting than the short sword had been: that now rested on his other hip. He was not used to carrying weapons – Lord Minham had never allowed his servant to be seen with any weapon but a belt knife, though he did have the task of carrying Lord Minham’s sword on state occasions, few as they were. Something felt right about the axe, though. Perhaps it was because it was in the stamme style that was so rare in Tornmile. Perhaps it was to do with the dreams he had been having. Perhaps it was all his imagination, but still he stroked the smooth metal of the axe head where it hung in a loop at his belt.

“If you keep up at that,” Marthe said, “you’ll cut your thumb off.”

“And I suppose you slash your wrists with your knives every time you put them away,” he said in return.

Marthe was momentarily stumped, lapsing into a shocked silence. He never normally returned her jibes, but there was something about wearing a Stammish axe that made him feel…right. It was hard to explain, but he was glad of the feeling. It was odd, though. He had grown up being taught about his culture by mother and father, being groomed for a place as a warrior of the Smrt – there was no other occupation for the sons of the Smrt, or the daughters for that matter. Every other profession, every other skill came second to that of warfare. The axe felt good because it was the sort of weapon his father would have carried, before the life-oath. Mishak could not remember his father not carrying the axe, though, even as Minham’s servant. He wondered if Minham had made attempts to refine his father and whether they had been met with the same cool eyed stare that any misbehaviour had earned Mishak. His father had been a hard man. Gentle and loving when he wanted to be, but always hard to the core: the Smrtritter personified.

“You’ve changed,” Marthe said, as they left the Tanneries and turned northwards for the wall.

“How so?”

“You are less a sheep and more a lion,” she said, “freedom agrees with you.”

“Anything’s better than waiting for a gallows jig.”

“True, but I didn’t mean freedom from prison. I meant freedom from servitude, freedom to do what you want to do.”

There was something in that, Mishak had to admit. Since the life-oath was broken things had changed. His first response had been resignation to his death, but since the escape he had been feeling more in control of his life, even as events around him seemed more chaotic. He had sat face to face with Minham’s murderer and had only been concerned for his own protection, for Marthe’s protection. Vengeance seemed small in comparison: the life-oath his father had made was important, as was honouring his father’s memory, but it seemed to Mishak that his father would have wanted more for his son than to be a servant for life. Mishak wondered what had happened to the Smrt since his family had left and what they now did. Were they living in cities like Tornmile content to be Stamms and second citizens or did they still wander the plains scratching a living here and there?

“Perhaps you’re right, Marthe,” he said, “but I’m still under orders, same as you. Just because they come from a different man doesn’t make them less an order.”

“It’s different. Mr Ferrer gives us orders and we act, but you chose this man to give you orders. Did you choose his lordship?”

“No,” Mishak admitted, “my father did because Minham saved his life. What other honourable choice was there?”

“I don’t know, Lord-killer,” she said, and he baulked at the name said so publically, but she affected not to notice, “but I’m a servant girl turned outlaw, what would I know about honour?”

“Is that what you are,” Mishak said, “or what you do? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself since Minham died.”

“And what have you decided?” she asked. She seemed almost nervous about what he would pick.

“I am Mishak, son of Miska of the Smrtritter,” he said, rubbing his thumb along the axe once more, “I am a son of the Smrt and of the stamme. What I do is up to me.”

Marthe nodded, but said nothing. As they walked he looked sideways at her and caught the trace of a smile on her face. She was beautiful, there was no denying that. He had grown used to hearing the swish of her skirts as she walked gracefully about, the lightning speed with which she could turn from smiles to fury, the knives in her sleeves that remained hidden from sight but that were always there. She laughed at you. The voice in the back of his head pushed the point home, but part of him parried the blow aside. I’d have laughed at me too.

As they crossed from the Tanneries into the north of the city – an area which did not have a common name owing to the fact that it was largely populated by the nobility and their retainers – Mishak started to lead the way. He knew this part of the city well, though he had never lived here, since Minham often called at noble’s manors instead of meeting them at the Spire, particularly when he wanted to be sure that unfriendly eyes and ears were out of the way. On occasion he had gone so far as to meet one noble in another noble’s mansion, since eyes and ears could be everywhere. Most of the noble’s houses had a man who reported to Minham amongst the staff. They would have other employers now, of course. Men like that did not worry too much about loyalty, just about coin. They had their uses though.

“Where is this safe house then?” Mishak asked as they came within sight of the north wall.

“I don’t know,” Marthe said, “it’s not one I’ve used before, but it should be easy enough to find.”

“How’s that? What do we look for?”

“There are always indicators on structures which are known not to move. Of course, it’s harder round here because there are so man retinues and the nobles like everything to look better.”

Mishak walked on, wondering what these indicators could be and what sorts of structures didn’t move – he hadn’t known any of them to move at all. The buildings in Tornmile were rarely changed, except when they burned down and even then new ones generally went up in their place. The houses here were bigger than those nearer the docks and in the tanneries, but in between the large manors of the nobles, nearest the north wall in case of attack from sea, there were still small complexes with courtyards and many houses crammed into small spaces.

“There!”

Marthe was pointing to a tree, which grew in between two houses. Its roots were gnarled and stuck out from the earth and the trunk was old, twisting this way and that as it fought to gain sunlight between the two human structures. An old knot protruded from the middle of the trunk and someone had carved an eye shape on it.

“The eye?” Mishak asked.

“Yes, it means safe house nearby,” Marthe said, “generally in the direction the eye is looking.”

They turned away from the tree and headed between two buildings opposite, following the path as it wound between properties. There were high walls here that extended beyond the two storied buildings, enclosing private gardens and other pleasures for the nobility. Eventually, they emerged into a courtyard at the back of an old inn, long since closed and now divided into houses. Many of them would be occupied by retainers and servants that did not live in their lord’s manors. Some would be empty, kept by those nobles who preferred to live in their country estates, but who did not want to stay in inns when the business of state called them to the capital.

“Yes, we’re close,” Marthe said, pointing to another eye chalked on the corner wall of the inn. This one was inside a circle.

She crossed the courtyard, passing what appeared to be a stable, which presumably once serving the inn. There was a large building behind where lots of windows overlooked the stables, but the streets of the city could not be seen. It was a good place for a safe house; not many eyes would fall on you from the street, which was good if you were avoiding the city guards.

“Is that a sign,” Mishak said as he followed her, pointing to a small X chalked above the lintel of a door.

“That is,” Marthe said, “but not the one I was expecting. That means that the safe house is abandoned and not to use it. A circle means that the safe house is open to use and a dot inside the circle means it’s already occupied. That’s what I was expecting.”

“Maybe they forgot to change the mark?” Mishak asked, thinking aloud.

“Maybe,” she said, “only one way to find out.”

She crossed to the door and turned the handle. It swung open and she went inside, with Mishak following behind her. The inside was not unlike the safe house that they had been in: old rugs covered the splintered floor boards and the furniture was usable, if not luxurious. The grate was clear; no fire had been lit in it for some time. There were shards of broken pottery on the floor.

“No one here,” Marthe said, opening the doors to the other rooms and poking her head in.

“No one’s stayed here for a while,” Mishak said, “but someone’s been here recently.”

He showed Marthe the broken ceramic, which had once been a drinking cup and then pointed to the scuff on the stonework of the chimney where it had smashed. She nodded, moved over to a cabinet in the corner of the room and pulled hard at the lattice work on the door. It came off in her hand, revealing a chalk board behind.

“No emergency message,” she said, replacing the lattice carefully so that it couldn’t be seen, “no communication of any kind.”

“What now?” Mishak asked.

“Let’s head back outside – maybe we missed something.”

They emerged back into the sunlight, which made them need to close their eyes a little after the dim interior of the building. Marthe looked up above the door at the X mark and shook her head. Then she turned and moved back to the inn, scanning it for more signs that might tell her where they had erred. Mishak remembered the inn – The Soaring Falcon. Lord Minham had held a small meeting of lords there once in one of the private dining rooms. Since the meeting was private the lords had served themselves drinks and Mishak had been told to wait in the stables until it was time to depart. He had passed the hours dicing with the stable boy and had lost badly.

He wandered over there now, standing leaning against the door frame and looking inside. No one seemed to have bothered changing the stables when the inn had closed down. The stalls stood empty, though there was still a slight smell of hay. There were empty hooks in the walls where harnesses and other such things were once held and racks to hold pitchforks and saddles. There was also an eye. It was carved into the doorframe close to the top, so that it faced into the stable. Mishak followed its line of sight. There was a hayloft at the other end, with a ladder leading up.

He called Marthe over and showed her the eye and then they both moved down the stables to the ladder. There was a circle with a dot inside it chalked on the edge of the hayloft. Mishak allowed Marthe to go first, holding the ladder and trying not to look up as she climbed. Once she was at the top he heard her gasp and swiftly followed her. She was kneeling by the side of a man, turning him over. His head was a little bloody and a purple bruise covered the left side of his forehead. A door built into the hayloft wall stood open, revealing a landing beyond.

“Dead?” Mishak asked, easing the axe in the belt loop.

“Just unconscious,” Marthe said and then gave him a slap.

There was no response, so she gave him another and he roused, scrambling to get away from Marthe.

“Who are you? What happened to the other woman?”

“Ferrer sent us,” Marthe said, “What woman? What happened to you?”

“I was attacked by a woman late last night. There was a noise out here so I came out and saw a man there – well dressed, noble sort. He had a lantern, so I blew it out and knocked him out and put him in one of the rooms. Then there was a knock on the door and I thought it’d be people from Ferrer like we sent for, but it was this woman. She threatened to cut my throat, asked me how many there were and who we’d got prisoner. She must have knocked me out.”

Mishak drew his axe and moved into the landing cautiously, looking this way and that. The doors to all the rooms were open and he walked between them, pushing them to their fullest extent. He didn’t want to be caught out by someone hiding behind them. The rooms were all empty.

“Anything?” Marthe asked in a whisper, stood on the landing with a knife in her hand. Mishak shook his head.

“We were downstairs,” said the man, holding a hand to his head and leaning heavily on the door frame.

Marthe moved to take the stairs, but Mishak put an arm out to stop her, going in front, his axe raised in case of danger. He was only about halfway down the stairs when he saw it: blood. There was a pool of it in the doorway opposite the bottom of the stairs, dark red and congealed. Mishak moved forward and pushed the door open. Marthe was just behind him.

Inside there was a mess of bloodied bodies. The blood was running from a large man who was face down in front of the door – clearly he had been taken unawares by someone. There was a hole in his back through which Mishak could see the bloody floorboards. To the left, another corpse, this one with a shattered cheek bone and a hole where his eye should have been. In the centre of the room was a chair. In front of that was a man with the remnants of a rope scar around his neck – a blade had been flicked across the scar, though, which had opened his throat. Blood pooled around his head and shoulders. There was a second wound to his arm. Another man lay behind the chair, his throat also in ruins, where someone had stabbed right through it. Five pairs of glassy eyes stared up at nothing. As if four bodies were not enough, there was a carving on the wall – a rose etched in with a dagger dipped in blood so that the petals stood out red.

“I think Mr Ferrer will want to see this,” Mishak said, “I think someone wants him dead.”

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