Tornmile: Part 45

Part XLV: What Lies Hidden

Johreel choked on snow and bitter cold bit at his skin. With effort, he rolled onto his back and coughed the snow from his mouth and throat, then laid breathing deeply and staring up at the sky. There was a pain in his face, a line of agony striking from his forehead to his cheek and digging into the bone. He reached up with a hand numb from the cold, which felt like a stranger’s hand as it pressed onto his skin. There was no injury there that he could feel, so he pushed the pain aside and forced himself to stand.

He was in a mountain pass, thick with snow and ice. Grey clouds roiled above him, obscuring the mountain peaks from view. Thunder rolled and the horizon was dark with distant rain. Below him, the pass sloped gently downwards towards a wide lake, the surface dull under the grey sky. A smattering of pines lined the path, turning to a deeper forest that ranged over the feet of the great mountains curled in a wide crescent to encompass the lake. Behind him more mountains thrust into the sky, overshadowing the snow laden path that wove through them. The snow made the path seem uninviting; the passes were likely closed by the winter.

Johreel turned back towards the lake and started down the path towards it, away from the mountains. There were mountains in Abboral, of course, but none of them were capped with snow. Instead, they dominated the skyline, the sun blazing from behind them, turning them into dark, rugged shapes against a sky of red and gold. Some were more like terraces than mountains and many cities and holdfasts were built on the steppes. Thoughts of Abboral made him reach instinctively for his weapons and he was relieved to find his curved daggers behind his belt and his pouches still dry inside. His sword hung from his belt, a reassuring weight on his hip. He drew all three blades tentatively, hoping that the cold had not made the blades stick. Each drew smoothly.

He trudged on slowly, sinking up to his knees into the snow, pulling his hood up against the cutting of the wind as he went. The path was hard going, but his boots were thick and kept the worst of the cold out. The pine trees shivered in the wind, their dark brown trunks sinking into the drifts of white. For once, he felt like he would have preferred to be in a tree than on the ground. Thunder continued to roll, becoming louder and louder as the storm approached him. Besides that and the crunching of his boots, there were no other sounds, not even the call of a bird. He felt alone in this world, wherever it was. What brought me here?

His vision blurred, turning the landscape before him to a mix of colours, and his foot slipped from under him, sending him sprawling forwards. His hands shot out to stop the worst of the fall and the drift of snow cushioned him, soaking through his tunic. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision and then stood once more, brushing the snow from his shoulders. He flicked his eyes left and right, waiting for an attack, but there was no movement amongst the few trees apart from the branches swaying in the wind. Satisfied, he moved on again, heading downwards towards the lake.

By the time he had left the snow behind, the storm had come upon him. Forks of lightning struck from a sky as dark as night, the clouds malevolently churning above him. Heavy rain crashed against the rocks in a fury and beat against the earth, throwing spray of water and dirt into the air.  Deafening peals of thunder followed the flashes of lightning, like the voice of God proclaiming his wrath. Johreel hunched his shoulders and huddled shivering under the canopy of a stand of pine trees, the smell of their sap in his nostrils and their needles spread like a carpet beneath his boots.

You’re going the wrong way.

Johreel slid into a crouch, loosening his sword in its scabbard and looking this way and that. He’d heard the words in his head, but could not pinpoint where they had come from. He watched the mountain path, but there was no one moving along it. He switched to look the opposite way, towards the tree line a little way ahead. Nothing moved there either, though the shadows beneath the branches were deep, but a flash of lightning followed soon after, driving back the darkness. There was no one there.

You’re going the wrong way.

The voice came again and this time Johreel did draw his sword. The sword shone as lightning struck once more, the silver blade reflecting the tree above him. There was a dark shape above his left shoulder. He wheeled, bringing the sword to bear, and saw that it was an eagle. It was massive, seeming to dwarf the branch it sat on. Its feathers were dark brown for the majority, though those on the nape of its neck were a tawny colour and it had similar feathers in its folded wings. Its eyes were almost gold, shining in the darkness. They were looking directly at him, boring into him from either side of a hooked beak.

Johreel cursed himself for jumping at the presence of a bird and moved further into the canopy to remove himself from the rain, which continued to pound the earth around him. The eagle’s eyes followed him.

“Go away.”

He jabbed his curved sword towards it in a bid to dislodge it from its perch. The eagle looked at the sword and then at Johreel, but it did not budge an inch. He pushed the blade closer this time, enough that the razor sharp tip brushed the eagle’s feathers. It regarded him over its beak as if with disdain.

“Stay then. I’ll go.”

Johreel sheathed the curved sword and moved out into the rain, aiming to cross the gap and take shelter in the forest, where the canopy would be thicker. The storm did not look like abating and there was little point trying to wait it out under the smaller stand of pines, especially if it was home to an eagle. He walked quickly, the mud sucking at his boots and the wind whipping at his hood. Rain soaked through his tunic and trousers, but he kept up a good pace and soon reached the line of trees, plunging beneath them. The thunder rolled above, but the rain had trouble forcing its way through the forest, so it was dry beneath the branches.

You’re going the wrong way.

The eagle sat on the branch of a tree directly ahead of Johreel, still staring directly at him. He had not heard its wings beat, nor had he seen it fly through the trees as he was making towards them. He walked towards it, maintaining eye contact with it as he did so. When he was directly beneath it, he addressed it.

“What do you want?”

You’re going the wrong way. Your path is to the top of the mountain.

The words seemed to arrive in his head, without anyone speaking them. The eagle had opened its beak, but he had heard no sound, only the words in his head. Did they come from the eagle? His vision blurred again and the world before him turned to a swirl of colour, edged with grey. The pain in his face came again and the eagle jumped up from the branch as if startled, spreading its wide wings. They were huge, stretching the length of the great branch on which it sat. The wings, like its body, were a mix of brown and tawny, but each was marked faintly towards the tip with a white star.

Turn back. Turn back.

The words came through the swirl and he had no doubt that they came from the eagle now. What magic is this? Johreel shook his head in an attempt to clear his vision and drew a throwing knife from his sleeve.

Turn back. Turn back or die.

Aiming where the eagle had been when he had last seen it, Johreel flung the knife from his hand and heard the dull thud as it struck something. There was a piercing cry; the eagle’s true voice. The blur faded and Johreel looked up to see that the knife had pierced the eagle’s breast, tearing into its heart. A single drop of blood ran the length of the blade. Time seemed to slow as the droplet fell through the air, a single crimson bead, and then it struck Johreel in the centre of his forehead. His vision blurred once more and he felt his legs go weak. The swirl of colours was consumed by darkness. Lightning flashed, but he did not hear the thunder.

Johreel’s eyelids parted reluctantly; he had to force them to stay open. Even with his eyes open everything was blurred, so that he could not make out where he was. It did not look like the Magister’s study. There was a pain like fire from his forehead to his cheek where the traitor’s sword had taken him. The wound was covered with bandages, which stuck to his skin where the blood had dried. He tried to move his arms but they felt like lead, though his fingertips brushed against his bare chest. Bare chest. The letters. The leaden feeling in his arms melted away and his vision cleared immediately.

He was in a part of the surgeon’s quarters, one of the smaller recovery wards. There was another bed on the other side of the room. It was occupied by someone, but Johreel could not see who. The sheet was pulled up to cover the whole body. Someone dead. That did not bother him; he had made as many corpses as he had seen. His tunic hung over the back of a chair to his right. He forced his arms to move, pushing himself up on the bed. It was a struggle; only his arms and head seemed to be free of the heaviness and even those were weaker than usual. He willed his legs to swing around but they would not. He gripped the side of the bed, fingers clawing at the wood, and little by little he managed to turn himself.

The effort it had taken was huge, but he willed himself onwards, reaching down to the floor and dragging himself towards the chair. His legs thumped against the stone floor, but he could not feel them to know if it was painful. He dragged himself on, grasping hold of the chair and climbing up it inch by inch until he could pluck the fabric from it. He turned so that he was roughly seated and searched the tunic. The letters were gone.

The door to the chamber swung open and Serkan stepped inside. They know, then. Serkan looked at the bed with the body in it – clearly that had not been there when he had come last. He turned away from it to Johreel’s bed, alighted briefly on its emptiness, and then searched out Johreel on the floor. Serkan moved forward looking at the tunic in Johreel’s hands. Johreel looked down at it. They had taken the letters, but they would not hear the treason from his lips.

“I was cold,” he said.

Serkan raised an eyebrow and stepped closer, though he did not reach for a weapon. His hands were still at his sides. Johreel knew that he would not have to reach – there were knives in the man’s sleeves. Johreel’s own weapons were on a table in the corner of the room. He would not be able to reach them, not without use of his legs. Serkan looked at Johreel’s weapons and then turned back to Johreel and smiled. The sheet covering the body in the far bed rustled slightly. A throwing knife slipped out of Serkan’s sleeve and into his waiting palm.

“Boarsleep potion,” Serkan said, starting towards Johreel, “The surgeon said that it would last a few more hours yet.”

“I did say that.”

The throwing knife in Serkan’s hand was slipped back up his sleeve and he turned to face the doorway. Johreel turned his head to see the surgeon stood there. He was wearing his usual stiff hide apron, covered in splashes of blood. Some of them were old dark stains that had not come out even from repeated scrubbing. Others were fresh, the crimson liquid still running down the cracks in the apron’s surface.

“Apparently, I was wrong,” the surgeon continued, “You are a man of unparalleled will, Dagger Johreel.”

“I was cold,” Johreel said, simply.

“Then allow me to help you.”

The surgeon moved forward, stepping around Serkan, to take the tunic from Johreel’s hands. He took each of Johreel’s wrists and slid them into the tunic’s sleeves, before pulling it over Johreel’s head. The fabric pulled at the bandaged wound on his face, but Johreel did no more than grit his teeth.

“Help me get him onto the bed,” the surgeon said to Serkan when the tunic was in place. Johreel noted the missing title in the instruction, and Serkan clearly heard it too.

Johreel took the Dagger pin from the seat of the chair and held it firmly in his arms. The end was sharp enough to discourage Serkan from trying to slide a throwing knife between his ribs. Serkan moved forward taking the opposite side to the surgeon and together they lifted Johreel onto the bed. There was fury in Serkan’s eyes and he stepped away as soon as Johreel was back on the bed. Johreel kept the dagger pin in hand as the surgeon began removing the bandages. The dried blood pulled, causing flares of pain, but Johreel withstood them.

“You have healed well,” the surgeon said, “The wound is still quite angry, but I have sewn it together. There will be a scar, but it will be minimal, and there was no damage to your eye.”

“Thank you,” Johreel said.

“Now, rest. I will find you some pain relief.” The surgeon turned to Serkan. “The Warden was looking for you. He wishes to know his orders since the Magister has not yet returned.”

Serkan breathed out heavily through his nose like a temperamental steed and then turned on his heel and strode away. The sound of his boots stamping on the flagstones echoed down the corridor and then faded to nothing.

“Insufferable man,” the surgeon said under his breath and then moved towards the door, “I’ll find that pain relief. Rest.”

With that he was gone. Johreel raised the Dagger pin to his tunic and slid it into place above his heart. With effort he raised a hand to his face and felt at the wound, ignoring the small lances of pain that accompanied his exploration. The surgeon was right – the wound was relatively clean edged and the surgeon’s own efforts with the needle had made sure it would close without too much scarring. Pleased, Johreel turned towards the body in the other bed.

“You can come out now, Assassin Seren.”

There was a moment where nothing happened and then the sheets rustled and fell to the floor. Seren lay with her head towards the foot of the bed, a loaded crossbow trained on the doorway and one of her swords next to her, free of its scabbard.

“How did you know?” she asked, swinging her legs down to sit on the edge of the bed.

“Serkan was surprised there was a body here, but the surgeon was not. He actively tried not to look at you. He is very good at his work, I can’t deny that, but the surgeon is not skilled at hiding his intentions. He knew you were there and he helped put you there. Did you take the letters?”

She looked at him, her eyes narrowing and the faintest trace of a smile appearing on her lips. He wondered what she meant by that, but the letters were the most important thing. He raised an eyebrow to push her for an answer.

“Yes. They’re safe.” Johreel breathed a sigh of relief. She tilted her head to one side, “The surgeon’s slip told you there was someone here, but how did you know it was me?”

Johreel looked her directly in the eyes.

“Who else?”

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