Tornmile: Part 47
Part XLVII: Leaf In A Forest
Johreel moved quickly through the undergrowth, crouching as he moved to avoid being seen. Trees creaked and cracked as the wind shivered through the canopy above. That wind was cold, cutting through Johreel’s tunic to the skin. But Johreel didn’t care about the wind, what he cared about was his destination, which was somewhere in this forest, hidden amongst the trees. He ignored the murmur of the branches and continued on his way. He had his bow in his hand as he moved, his keen eyes searching the trees for any signs of movement. He held an arrow loosely against the string, ready to bring the bow to bear if it was needed. A blow from one of his daggers would be quieter, but there was always the possibility that he would not be able to get close before he was seen. Better to be prepared.
Despite the directions he had, he was not sure he was prepared for this. There was too little information and Johreel was not happy that he didn’t know exactly where he was going. The Magister’s letters had not been explicit – there were clues here and there, but Johreel couldn’t help wondering if this weren’t akin to trying to catch a man’s shadow. Perhaps he should have brought Seren to help him seek the place the letters referred to. Together they could have covered a much larger expanse of the forest. He had wanted her to stay in the Crucible, though, to keep an eye on Serkan and so that she could give him advance warning if the Magister returned whilst Johreel was absent. If the Magister did return, Seren would tie a red cloth to a tree near the road below the Crucible. The signal would stop him walking blindly into a trap.
It was dark in the forest, though it was only an hour or so before dawn. Johreel had ridden through the dark watches of the night to get here, leaving the horse behind so that its whickering would not draw attention. The last day had been spent in reading the letters. Some had been communications from the Sanctuary Masters on business of the Order. Others had been personal correspondences and these had proved more illuminating. The ones from Lord Rolande were the most useful. Lord Rolande was on the Regency Council and so was one of the high lords of the Empire. He had also been one of three who had paid for the death of Minham. That had been mentioned in the letters, as had ‘the relic’, which Johreel had taken to mean the sword, Durandal. This forest had been mentioned as the relic’s hiding place and so Johreel had come to retrieve it. If he could so so, then he would have proof enough of the Magister’s treason. The letters would also help; he had left those with Seren so that she could continue to decipher clues and evidence. Everything they could uncover would be useful when the charge was made against the Magister.
Johreel paused behind a stout oak and watched between the trees. Somewhere ahead, a badger snuffled in the undergrowth, but there was no other movement. High above, an owl sat looking down at him, its bright eyes the only thing marking its position. The brown speckled feathers were impossible to determine against the dark wood: perfect for catching prey unawares. Johreel hoped he could remain similarly concealed until he had his evidence, but there was always the chance that the Magister had ridden out to retrieve the sword. Johreel wondered where else the old man could have gone.
Serkan was also a problem. Johreel didn’t like leaving him alone in charge of the Crucible, but he had little other choice. The sword was too important not to go after it. Was Serkan complicit in the Magister’s crimes? It was not clear from the letters and nothing else linked him to the sword, but the man wanted Johreel dead. He had been lucky to escape the last time, unable as he had been to defend himself. There was also the connection to the Moreana traitor to consider, and what the look that had passed between the two men had meant. Johreel hoped Seren would find something in the letters. If she did not and they removed the Magister for his treason, then there was little doubt that Serkan would take his place. He would not be promoted to the head of the Order immediately, of course, for the Sanctuary Masters would have to meet and elect the new Magister, but Swords had a habit of becoming Magisters, just as Daggers became Swords. That would not be the case if Serkan were elected though. He would certainly not promote Johreel and it was likely that he would send him to be Sanctuary Master somewhere close enough to be kept an eye on, but far enough away that Johreel could not meddle. New Magisters were at liberty to appoint their own Sword and Dagger; Johreel would be reliant on his friendship with Serkan for his position.
That nearly made Johreel laugh out loud, but he swallowed the laughter and moved instead, silent as the owl above waiting for its prey. Threading his way through the trees, Johreel noticed that they had begun to thin. He peered ahead through the dim forest and saw that the trees opened out into a clearing. There was a building of stone of only one storey in the centre of the clearing. Grass and bracken grew thickly around the building, reaching up to the closed shutters, which barred Johreel’s sight to whether anyone was inside. It looked abandoned, but that didn’t mean it was. If this was the hiding place of Durandal, then it would almost certainly be guarded.
Instead of making straight for the building, Johreel kept back from the clearing’s edge and began a circuit. He wanted to see the building from all angles before he decided where he would begin his search of it. Pale moonlight fell on the building, casting a long shadow that reached into the trees. The silver light gave the grey stone a spectral quality. That was reinforced by the wind tugging at a pair of large double doors, bringing them open slightly and then allowing them to fall shut with a light thud. Johreel recognised those doors and the shape of the building from this side. It was the forge of the blacksmith Seppo. It had been he who had accused Johreel of wanting the sword in the first place, before smashing his hammer down on Johreel’s left hand. There was a flash of pain there at the memory, accompanied by the smell of burning flesh; Johreel had thrown the man into his own forge. The sensations lingered for a moment and then were gone.
Moving cautiously forward, Johreel thought through the layout of the blacksmith’s home in his head. He had already made an extensive reconnaissance of the place when he had come to kill the blacksmith and that played to his advantage now. If Durandal was here then it would make it easier to retrieve. He had doubts about that though. The blacksmith had said that the sword had been here once, authenticated by him for Lord Minham, but that he had passed it back to its owner. Was this location in the Magister’s letter just old information? There was only one way to find out.
Keeping as low as possible to the long grass, Johreel moved towards the forge doors, pressing him against the wood when he got there. He waited for the wind to blow the door open and then slipped through the gap and into the dark room beyond. The wind let go its hold on the door behind him and it slammed shut once more. This was the forge itself, which stood to one side behind the great anvil in the centre of the room. The forge was no longer stacked with coals as it had been on Johreel’s last visit. Someone had been and cleaned away the debris of Seppo’s assassination. Johreel paused, drawing himself into the shadows by the door, and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light.
Whilst he waited, he used the time to check his pouches for his powder distractions, various poisons, and other tools of his trade. He eased his daggers in their scabbards, adjusted a few throwing knives in his sleeves, and repacked his bow in the case he carried on his back, which also held a small quiver of arrows. He listened as he worked, keeping his own noises to a minimum, to see if he could pick out any sounds in the building. There was the faint sound of breath being drawn, but no movement accompanied the sound. Someone asleep.
He could make out the room now in various shades of grey, rather than one indistinct inky mass, and so moved forwards towards the door, feet barely seeming to touch the flagstones. He crept through the open doorway into the room where the blacksmith’s bed had been before. It was gone now; the blacksmith’s first swing at Johreel had splintered the frame, and doubtless whoever had cleaned away the body had also dealt with the ruin of the bed. In its place was a pallet on the floor, on which two people slept. Johreel stepped closer to examine them.
Both were known to him from the Crucible; two Tornmilian Assassins who had joined the Crucible as Recruits and graduated to Assassins a year or so later. They were good fighters and better killers. If they were sleeping, though, it meant that there were others here; someone would always take the watch at night. Johreel pulled a vial from one of his pouches and uncorked it, allowing a few drops to fall into each of the Assassins’ mouths. Boarsleep potion. He had added that to his collection before he had left the Crucible. They would not wake now for a good many hours and would be unable to move if they did. There was no point in killing them – he might be a traitor, but there were limits. Besides, they did not know their master was a traitor worse than Johreel. He replaced the vial and then moved to search the rest of the house, wary for the watchman that guarded these two whilst they slept.
The other rooms of the house were empty, however. The same furnishings and fittings from Johreel’s last visit still adorned the house, but there was no one else in the building. Johreel returned to the sleeping Assassins and cursed himself for not thinking to wake one of them and interrogate them, instead of assuming there would be others here. He could try to do that now, but the effects of the boarsleep might make it fruitless. It was his only option, though, so he moved forwards and drew one of his curved daggers to act as coercion. As he approached, he saw something beneath the pallet that he had missed before. There was a trapdoor there.
Relying on the boarsleep to keep the Assassins from waking, Johreel heaved the pallet aside, and then moved to examine the trapdoor. It had a heavy iron ring, but the hinges were well oiled and looked to be easy to open. He pulled at the ring and the trapdoor opened up into the room. A ladder moved downwards into the depths. Johreel moved forward without hesitation and began to climb down the ladder.
It ended after a short climb in a small room, with a door in one wall. Johreel moved towards it and listened. He could a sort of rustling, but nothing more. He took one of his daggers out and slowly eased the door open, blinking as light shone out from the room. It was not all that well lit – a few candles in lanterns around the room – but the light glittered and reflected of the vast array of weapons hung from the walls. There were finely polished broadswords, rapiers, battle axes and more, each hung with precision from the stonework. Someone was sitting at a table in the centre of the room, looking through papers. Johreel moved silently up behind the man, and then grabbed his free arm, pushing him forwards onto the desk and placing the cold steel of his dagger against the man’s neck.
“Ah, Dagger Johreel, you’ve finally arrived.”
It was the Crucible surgeon.
“What are you doing here?” Johreel demanded.
“Keeping this from falling into the wrong hands,” the surgeon said, tapping a brightly polished sword on the table. It was inscribed above the hilt with the name ‘Durandal’.
“The Magister ordered me to. I knew you would come once Assassin Seren had asked for my help in protecting you.”
“No,” Johreel said, shaking his head, “why are you keeping that sword from falling into the wrong hands. It is made from cheap steel and is too well polished to be a relic from the founding of the Empire.”
“The Magister always said you see much. Too much, it seems.”
“Where is the real Durandal?”
“Work it out, Dagger,” the surgeon said, laughing to himself, “I will not betray the Magister in telling you.”
“The Magister is a traitor to the Order. You should stand with me. Why else would you keep me alive?”
“It is my duty. How many times do you think I have kept alive those I would rather see dead, or brought back from the brink those who did not deserve it?”
Johreel took the surgeon’s arms and pulled the sleeves of his tunic down, tying them to the chair so that he could not escape. Johreel had the feeling that he would not anyway. To make sure that he did not, Johreel moved the chair to the wall farthest from the door; it would give him time to throw a knife if the surgeon ran, or defend himself if he chose to fight. The surgeon smiled at Johreel, but there was nothing in the eyes. Turning away from the man, Johreel looked around the room at each of the swords in turn, inspecting each one.
“The best place to hide a leaf, Dagger, is in a forest. You won’t find the sword.”
“My country has few trees, and those that exist are all a light brown with sharp thorns,” Johreel said, “Some you can drink from, if you are thirsty and far from home. Others, if you drink from them, you will die in agony. Anyone who intends to live a long time learns the differences, small as they are, between those trees. It is the same for warriors. You learn the difference between blades for show and blades for killing if you want to live a long time.”
Johreel moved across to a weapons rack along the right side of the wall and pulled a sword out. It was in a plain scabbard and the hilt was wrapped in simple brown leather. The pommel and crossguard were unadorned metal. Johreel slowly drew the sword – the blade was well balanced, finely made. The edge was sharp, but there were no marks where it had been scuffed while being sharpened. There were letters inscribed above the hilt, running towards the central fuller.
“Besides,” Johreel said, pulling a folded page from one of his pouches, “research is always helpful.”
Spreading the page on the desk, Johreel cross-referenced the inscription on the blade with the one from the book that Remiel had suggested. They were identical in every detail.
“There,” Johreel said, tucking the page away, “that wasn’t so hard.”
“And what now? You will claim it as your own?”
“No. I will use it to show the Magister’s treason and then return it to its rightful owner. I am an Assassin, not a thief.”
He placed the sword into the scabbard and attached it to his belt, surprised by how little it weighed. That done, he moved towards the surgeon and drew one of his curved blades.
“But first, you will tell me more of what the Magister intends. The more you tell me, the longer you live.”
To Johreel’s surprise, the surgeon smiled.
“If you stay to torture me, you won’t be able to save her.”
“What? Save who?”
“Your devoted protector,” the surgeon said, laughing, “who else?”