Tornmile: Part 37

Tornmile
Part XXXVII: A Companion’s Worth

 The road from the city to the Crucible was not a long one, but as Johreel urged his horse past the gate guards the road stretched before him like the unending, featureless wastes of the deserts of Abboral. There were two reasons for him feeling that way. The first was the silence that had existed between him and Seren since their last exchange in The Shieldmaiden. Since then she had not spoken a word to anyone, not even the stable hand roused from his slumber amongst the straw to fetch her horse. Johreel did the talking with the stable hand, but even he found that his voice sounded unnaturally loud when he spoke. It was like he was speaking in the Chamber of God, a place of worship in his native town where it was forbidden for anyone to speak.

The tension had only grown since they had left the stables and Johreel wondered if it would break soon and what the consequences would be. Seren rode behind him, hood pulled low over her brow and a scarf pulled up to her nose so that only her eyes were visible in the starlight. She didn’t look as if she would be the one to break the silence and Johreel couldn’t do so either. He wanted to but every time he searched for words to say all he could think of was her last words to him: Only if you want to fail.

That was the other reason the road seemed long. What he was planning was treason if he was caught and the Order did not look kindly on traitors. It was part of the role of the Dagger to root out treason in the Order, just as it was part of the Sword’s role and the Magister’s, but usually that meant dealing with those who were giving Order secrets to outsiders, particularly what passed for the authorities of the land. He had been involved in helping the Sanctuary Master at Moreana in dealing with a traitor; the screams of the man had lasted unbroken for days before he had succumbed.

What Johreel was looking at was the possibility that the Magister had been handpicking targets associated with the legendary sword Durandal, the sword of Siarl the Great supposedly given to him by a messenger of the Emperor of Heaven that the Tornmilians worshipped. Johreel had previously wondered if this deity of theirs was simply a misunderstanding of God rather than an outright blasphemy as he had first thought, but whether or not it was hardly mattered. There were more important questions surrounding the sword: was the Magister attempting to find it or to steal it? Whichever it was, why was he doing that? More importantly still, who else knew about his plans? Johreel could believe that Serkan was involved, but he had to be sure before he could do anything about it. It would be unwise to challenge Serkan without first being aware of the facts, especially with his hand still in a splint. Johreel flexed it now as far as he could and was reassured by the lack of pain. It was healing quickly – the surgeon knew his work well.

The combination of the apprehensiveness about what lay ahead and the darkness meant that Seren and Johreel kept a steady pace on the road. The silence gave Johreel time to think; if Serkan was involved then he needed to be eliminated. Even when he was sure of Serkan’s involvement, he could not act openly. It would have to look like an accident or a mission gone wrong. Removing Serkan would make it easier to take the Magister, but the Magister must not suspect what was happening. Johreel would need to be careful.

Spying on the Magister would need more care even than that; the Magister’s quarters stood apart from all the others in the Crucible, specifically so that only those called there would have necessity to be in the vicinity. Johreel had only been there himself on one occasion, shortly after his arrival from the Moreana sanctuary, and the simplicity of the study had surprised him. It was a large room, but the only things in it were a few chairs, a large desk with its own matching chair, and bookcases. There were a few bird cages on the shelves, mostly for the keeping of carrier pigeons, but some held exotic birds, kept by the Magister for the pleasure of their plumage rather than their usefulness as messengers. Those and the one large rug on the floor were the only comforts in the room. Johreel had never seen the Magister’s other rooms and he suspected that no one but the Magister had. Gaining access would be a challenge, but it might well prove necessary. If you have secrets in our Order, you keep them close by.

“Climb the walls,” Seren said from behind him.

The unexpected end to the silence threw Johreel – he felt the tension snapping, whipping back towards him – and he lost control of his horse for a moment. The beast snorted and flicked its mane, unhappy with his sudden grasping to retain control, but he soon steadied and soothed it so that he could turn to look at Seren.

“What was that?”

“I was thinking that you’d need to get into the Magister’s quarters if you want to see what secrets he is keeping and you can hardly expect there not to be questions if you are seen heading that way without reason. Being the Dagger affords you some protection from ill thoughts, but not all eyes will turn themselves away on the strength of your rank. But your position was gained in the Order because of your ability to climb. I know that Minham’s contract relied on climbing and that’s why you were chosen to fulfil it over Sword Serkan. The Magister told the Sword as much himself; I overheard them talking in the library. If you can climb the Spire, you can climb the Crucible.”

“Perhaps,” Johreel returned, allowing his horse to slow so that Seren’s would catch up with him, “but there are many windows along the walls of the Crucible, even in that area. I might come out somewhere unknown and have to walk the corridors searching each room to find the Magister’s study.”

“True,” she conceded, pulling the scarf from her face, “but you are the Dagger and you are returning from an important mission with the head of the target. You should go to the Magister’s study to present it to him and then you would have the opportunity of marking the window or observing what lies below it.”

“It would also be prudent for you to follow the Magister and see where he goes and with whom he talks, not least because I’ll need to know when the study is likely to be empty. You have overheard useful information before and perhaps you will again.”

Seren nodded and then lapsed into silence. It was not uncomfortable, though; it was a silence shared rather than a barrier that separated them. Johreel imagined the walls of the Crucible, which were sheer, but he knew that the stonework was old and that would provide places for handholds and spikes to allow grip. It should have occurred to him sooner, but he was glad that Seren had given him the idea. Once again there was a part of his mind that questioned her motives – why would she suggest it? Was it a trap laid by the Magister or by Serkan? He pushed the thoughts away, remembering her words in the darkness of the room in The Shieldmaiden: ‘No other hand but yours.’ He had to trust her or he ran the risk of failing in his enterprise entirely. But don’t trust her too far. Never too far.

Johreel suddenly felt eyes on him and turned instinctively, but the road behind was empty. In the distance he could just make out the lamplight of ships in the docks and the dark shape of the Spire rising from the centre of the city into the sky. They were close to the point where they would turn aside from the road that wound through the forest and head up towards the fortress on the cliff top which the Assassins called home.

“What is it?” Seren asked, seeing he had turned in the saddle.

“I felt eyes on me,” Johreel said, dropping his voice to a whisper so that only she could hear.

Perhaps he was being paranoid; he knew that he had been more guarded recently, especially since Tubal and the death of the blacksmith. It was he that had put doubts into Johreel’s mind, but the injury that he had sustained at the blacksmith’s hands also put him on his guard. The feeling didn’t alter, though, with discovering the road empty. Gently, he eased the curved blades at his belt in their scabbards, under the pretence of checking his pouches. If they were being watched, drawing steel might bring arrows from the dark woods on either side. Seren let her hand fall to her side, feigning weariness of holding the reins so that she could ease her sword free of its scabbard. The move was impeccable; had he not expected it, Johreel doubted that he would have seen her touch the hilt at all.

He strained his eyes forward, raking the tree line on either side as much as he could without appearing startled. There was no discernible movement in the trees, though the light was not enough to be certain. He strained his ears too, trying to hear beyond the rhythmic hoof beats of the horses and catch signs that might betray a man creeping through the undergrowth. He listened doubly hard for the sound of a tensing bowstring that might indicate that they were about to be fired upon. The only sound he caught, though, was from Seren’s lips: a small hiss, short and sharp, drawing his attention but purposefully kept quiet. He looked towards her and she nodded her head to the road in front.

A fallen tree, or so it appeared, lay across the road. It was quite thin, but ran from the small rise of woodland away from the ride on one side to its duplicate on the other, meaning that it was too high to risk jumping on horseback in the dark. It bore the signs of having had many branches at one point, but only a few protruded now. Johreel suspected that the rest had been cut away rather than broken off as it fell: he could see no gap in the tree line that would have been created by a tree falling, quite apart from the fact that there had been no storm that might explain its fall. Someone had left the trunk to waylay travellers, intended to stop carts, horses, and coaches as they turned the corner in front on their way towards the city. The road behind would then be lost from view and the travellers more easily ambushed.

“Bandits?” Seren whispered as they approached the fallen trunk.

“Perhaps,” Johreel answered, “I suspect we will find out.”

Johreel dismounted as they drew close to the tree trunk and moved across to examine it. Close up he was able to confirm his suspicion that the tree had not fallen from the side of the road, but had been cut elsewhere and then set here on purpose. Looking left and right he managed to locate a man with a bow and arrow hidden in the canopy of a tree, given away by a glimpse of a goose feather flight in the moonlight. He would need to be dealt with when the trap was sprung; Johreel made a mental note of his position. In the meantime, he acted as any man would do unaware of the danger and pushed at the tree trunk to move it aside. As he did so there was crashing from the undergrowth and seven men emerged with scarves covering the lower halves of their faces. They all brandished swords, except for one carrying a sturdy crossbow and another with a mace. Impressive weapons for bandits.

The man with the crossbow approached Johreel, keeping the weapon levelled so that the bolt was aimed at Johreel’s heart. He could see the steel tip of it glinting in the moonlight. The mace carrier moved towards Seren, who had remained mounted, and she raised her arms into the air.

“That’s right – hands in the air,” the mace man said to her, “nice and high.”

“You too,” the crossbowman said to Johreel, gesturing upwards with his weapon.

It was the opening Johreel had been waiting for. A quick flick of the wrist brought a throwing knife into his hand, protruding from between his fingers, and he punched forward, driving the knife between the man’s ribs. Grabbing the crossbow, he spun the man around to take the arrow Johreel was expecting from the trees. Sure enough it thumped into his back and the crossbowman dropped without a word, leaving his loaded weapon in Johreel’s hands. Johreel spun it around, raised it, and fired directly at the tree in which he had seen the archer. There was a cry of pain and then a loud thud.

“Stop, or I’ll smash –”

The man with the mace cut off as Seren smashed her boot down on his face causing his legs to buckle. He was only just beginning to fall when she drew her sword from the scabbard and stabbed downwards, plunging it deep into his neck. She was already turning to meet a sword blow from the other side as the mace carrier’s corpse slapped against the road. Johreel had only enough time to smile briefly at her skill before he was set upon by two of the swordsmen, one from each side. A wild lunge from the first gave him the opportunity to catch the man’s sword arm under his arm with the injured hand. A swift strike to the back of the elbow snapped the man’s arm like kindling. As he pushed through the man’s bone, Johreel flicked a dagger into his good hand, sweeping it back and slicing the man’s neck open. Johreel felt blood spray onto his hand as he pulled the dagger free, but he was already turning to parry the second man’s blade, pushing the blow aside with his left arm and stabbing the dagger into the side of the man’s face. The blade slipped from Johreel’s grasp, slippery with blood and caught on the man’s jaw bone.

Johreel reached for his curved blade, drawing it from behind his back as a third swordsman came on. Beyond him, Johreel saw Seren engaging the remaining two on foot, expertly blocking thrusts and driving them back using a dagger as a gauche. He had no time to watch, though, as his opponent made a confident strike, cutting diagonally from right to left. The man was skilled with a sword and the moonlight revealed gold stars worked on his breast: he was an army captain.

Johreel was forced to make a combined block and dodge to avoid the blade, but the man followed with a blow from his forearm that caught Johreel on the wrist. He stumbled, his own blade skittering from his grasp, and reached for his second, knowing that he had no hope of reaching it before his opponent struck him down. The captain drew his blade back and smiled. There was a sickening crunch and the captain’s head was cut from his shoulders, rolling off into the trees as his body quivered and collapsed. Seren stood behind him, sword bloody and dark splatter marks on her face. She and Johreel were the only ones left standing. Seren bent to wipe her blade on the headless captain’s tunic and looked up at Johreel.

“Glad you didn’t kill me now, aren’t you?”

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